Scorched

I recently discovered that I am autistic. One of the decisions I’ve had to make was whether or not to pursue official diagnosis. Writing this story helped me process some of the difficult emotions I’ve had to deal with.


“Okay. Here we are, then.” Monica pulled the car to a gentle halt. “Now, you’re sure—”

Appel already had her seat-belt unbuckled. She suppressed her impatience as her mother put a hand on her arm.

“Sweetheart, you’re sure-sure that you don’t want me to come in with you?” Monica said earnestly. “You know I don’t mind…”

Click click click click click click click.

The turn indicator was still on, the sound nagging at Appel’s attention. 

“It’s fine, Mom.” It took an effort to keep her voice calm and relaxed. She smiled and glanced at her mother’s eyes, establishing that moment of intimacy she knew Monica expected and valued.  “I need to learn to do these things by myself, don’t I?”

“That’s true.” Monica gazed at her daughter, anxiety radiating off her so strongly Appel wanted to lean away from her. “You’re right. I just want you to know that—”

It took an effort for Appel not to say the words out loud along with her mother. “— that everyone’s a little bit magic, and no matter what the tester says, you’re still my daughter, and I love you.”

“Thanks, Mom. I know.”

“Just so long as you remember that, sweetheart.”

 Appel did not wince when her mother stroked her hair back from her face.

Click click click click click click.

To Appel’s immense relief, the driver behind them gave an impatient bip on their hooter.

“Got to go now, Mom.” Seeing the strain in her mother’s face, she relented a little. “Love you too, Mom. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Before Monica could say anything else to delay her, Appel got out of the car, and closed the door firmly. 

The other diver hooted again, and, after one last wave and a blown kiss, Monica pulled away.

Appel turned to face the building. 

This was it.

She’d seen the Institute often enough, but had never gone inside it. 

She climbed the wide steps to the entrance, half expecting the security guard to stop her, but the man just gave her a cursory glance and waved her through.

Excuse me, where do I go for Magical Potential testing?” Appel recited under her breath.

She’d rehearsed that question many times, and had it ready to use, but to her relief she did not need to approach any of the strangers in the foyer. 

A big sign listed all the venues, and there it was, the information she needed, third row from the top: Assessment, Testing and Diagnostics for Magic Potential: Room 1005

Appel found her way easily along the corridors. The doors were all numbered, and it was easy to see where she was meant to go. 

She saw a few other people, all dressed in standard grown-up office clothes. None of them gave her so much as a second glance, and none came close enough for her to get more than a whiff of their emotions.

As usual, she held her breath to avoid absorbing too much, but she could still sense them. Wafts of distracted calculation and the low level grumbles of petty irritation.

At least she blended in. Monica had been right to insist that Appel should wear her most grown-up, boring clothes.  A white blouse, and a narrow, grey skirt, stockings, and neat black shoes.  

Appel had resisted. She despised wearing stockings, hated being constantly aware of the waistband digging into her, hated the way her skirt swished over her stockinged legs with every step. But she had to admit that these clothes were right for this place. Nobody gave her so much as a second glance.

The door to room 1005 stood open. The receptionist looked up as Appel hovered on the doorstep. “Can I help you?” 

Appel approached the desk and held out her application form. 

The receptionist took the form, glanced through it, then up at Appel.“This is for you?”

Appel nodded.

The woman read the form over again, then typed something into her computer. She radiated a steady, competent hum. Out of habit, Appel stepped back out of range, to a distance where she was no longer aware of the woman’s emotions, and took the opportunity to study her surroundings. 

The room was disappointingly normal. It had a beige wall-to-wall carpet, and soft off-white walls. Several people were seated on the row of plastic chairs. Three boys, and three women.  

 “This seems to be all in order.” The receptionist placed Appel’s form in a file. “Please take a seat. Doctor will call you when he’s ready to see you.”

“Thank you,” Appel whispered, and chose the closest chair.

Everyone was looking at her, so she kept her eyes down so that no one would feel obliged to speak to her.

After a few moments, when no one showed any signs of intruding on her silence, she risked another quick glance around the room.

The boys were all at least ten years younger than Appel. Each sat next to a woman Appel guessed must be their mother.  

Each boy’s hands and arms were wrapped in chokes, the soft but strong spell-damping chords that would keep them from accidentally sparking.

The boy closes to Appel, a delicate, round-faced child with big, brown eyes, leaned against his mother, and she had her arm around him, her fingers playing absently through his fine hair.

They were close enough that Appel could pick up the woman’s thoughts, a gentle flow of comfort and warm scents. Clean cotton, drying in the sun. A book fitting cleanly back into its place on the shelf. And under it, a subtle rasp of worry, stopping and starting, like the gnawing of a small animal.

Nothing from the boy, of course, because of the chokes. 

Appel looked furtively at the carefully knotted chords. She wondered what it was like to wear them.

She’d never asked her parents why they hadn’t bought her chords. Maybe it was because they were so expensive? Or maybe it was because they were mostly a boy thing. 

Appel knew better than to ask them. Spell chords were one of the many things that were Not To Be Discussed. Especially not with Monica. Sometimes Appel thought that her mother considered chords as vulgar and flashy, in the same way she scorned those who wore make-up or flashy clothes.

People like us don’t need to show our value.

But sometimes, she sensed there was something more to it. The few times she’d sensed  Monica’s thoughts on chords, they had had that flavour of judgement she reserved for people who caught mice in glue-traps.

Ignorance does not excuse cruelty.

Appel shifted in her seat, trying to ignore the constricting waistband of her skirt. Her feet felt tight in the stiff, black shoes, and she longed to take them off.

The boy next to her was tapping his fingers, each finger in turn against his thumb in a steady rhythm.

Appel realised that she was tapping too, and suppressed the movement, automatically transferring the rhythm into her head where it became a private melody, the way she always did.

Then she frowned.

She was here to be assessed. To be diagnosed as a magic user, if that was what she was. Diagnosed, so that she could be trained to control and direct her magic, if she had any.

Surely that meant she had to display her symptoms? 

Involuntary, repetitive movements were a classic sign of having the potential to become a magic user.

Involuntary.

That was the problem, wasn’t it? Were her taps involuntary?  She could stop doing them, after all. When she was aware of them, that is.

The trick was to transfer the rhythm from her body into her mind. That was why she nearly always had a fragment of music in her head, playing in a perpetual loop.

She’d discovered this was the best way. If she just tried to stop her body’s movements, the energy tended to come out in unexpected and unfortunate ways, as she’d found to her cost.

Appel couldn’t help noticing that none of the boys suppressed their movements at all. 

The boy next to her tapped his fingers. The boy next to him bounced his knees and swayed where he sat, and the boy on the far side of the room had his head tipped back, twirling his fingers in his hair as he hummed softly to himself.

None of the adults seemed to mind.

Should she try it too? Just let herself tap. Out in public, where anyone could see.

It did not seem right, somehow.

“Appel Lategan?” 

Appel startled to attention. 

“Doctor is ready for you,” the receptionist said.

An inner door had opened, and a man stood waiting there.  A tall man with short,wispy brown hair and plastic-rimmed glasses.

Appel rose to her feet. “What about them?” she asked abruptly, indicating the boys and their mothers. “They were here before me.”

 “Don’t worry, dear, that’s alright.” The receptionist smiled. “They’re here to see a different doctor.”

“Come along,” the man at the door said. His smile did not reach his eyes.

Appel’s mouth felt dry. Somehow she made her way across the room and through the door into the office beyond it. As she passed by the man, she couldn’t sense anything from him at all. 

No emotions. No thoughts.

That was a relief. She’d rather not know what went on behind those grey eyes. And it made sense that someone in his position would be adept at shielding himself.

 “Please take a seat over there,” the man said, indicating a padded bench. 

Appel obeyed. The bench was slightly too low for her, and felt awkward.

“So”. The man pulled out a chair and sat down across from her, all the while studying a piece of paper Appel assumed was her form. “Miss Lategan. I am Doctor Glen. I will be assessing you for magical potential, and diagnosing where you fall in the range. Assuming—” and he glanced up at her, “— that you are in range.”

Appel nodded, to show she understood and accepted.

Her mother’s words echoed in her ears. Everyone is a little bit magic. 

She had to fight the urge to squirm in irritation. If everyone was a little bit magic, why did she have to come to this place to be tested?

“Miss Lategan.” Doctor Glen sorted through a few papers, made a note, then looked at Appel over his glasses again. “I will be asking you a few questions. You must answer honestly. Do you understand?”

He spoke a little too slowly, and a little too clearly.

“Yes.” Appel nodded again.

“You are to give me the true answer, not the one you think I want to hear. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That way, we can ensure the objectivity of this procedure. So. Tell me your full name, and your age.”

“Appel Lategan. I am eighteen years old.”

“Appel. The first question is: would you rather go to a library or a theatre?”

Appel hesitated.

She knew what this question was designed to test. Did she prefer a quiet place of study or a noisy, distracting, socially confusing space of entertainment?

A typical magic user, she knew,  was intolerant of distraction and hypersensitive to the mind-noises of other people. Magic users should value the serious-minded world of books and studying. 

She should, therefore, answer “Library”.

But the doctor had told her to answer honestly, and not according to what she knew she was supposed to answer. What was the honest answer?

Library or theatre.

Did he mean Glencore library, with its noisy air conditioner and distractingly flickering fluorescent lights? Or Central Library, which was lovely and quiet, and where the librarians never scolded you for returning late books? Did he mean the Baxter Theatre, with its big, calm, open space and beautiful drifting orange lights, where it was easy to get away from the crowd, or— 

Doctor Glen cleared his throat.  His eyebrows were raised expectantly.

“Library,” Appel said, and felt an instant flood of shame scorch over her body.

She was faking it. Giving the answers that were expected of her, rather than the ones that were true. 

“Do you prefer to have many friends, or only one, special friend?”

This one was easier. She could answer without thinking about it at all. 

“One, special friend.”

“Do you have difficulty in calling people by their first names?”

“Yes.”

That one was true, too, although she’d never thought about it before.

As the doctor recorded her answer,  Appel suddenly remembered that one of the symptoms of a magic user was a discomfort with making eye contact. Had she been looking at the doctor too much? 

Her parents had always insisted that she look at people. People liked it when you looked at them, it was rude not to, no matter how uncomfortable it made you feel. But maybe he expected her not to make eye contact. Wasn’t that another symptom?

She found herself staring at Doctor Glen’s nose, then at his left eye, and then gave up and looked at a patch of floor. 

The shame rose inside her, like nausea in her throat. 

She was faking it again.

She could look at his eyes, if she wanted to.

“Appel?”  

Appel found that she was breathing rapidly and shallowly.  A niggling ache had started at the base of her skull. 

“Do you need a break? Maybe some water?”

 “Yes, please.” Appel’s voice came out as a whisper.

The doctor poured a glass of water from a jug and handed it to her. Appel drank, trying to ignore his scrutiny.

It was so odd to be so close to another person and not have any sense of their thoughts of emotions. 

“Ready to go on now?”

Appel gave him the glass back, and nodded wordlessly.

“Good. Okay. Where was I. Oh yes. Do you have any strong fears or aversions? For example, are you afraid of insects?”

“No.”

“Snakes?”

“No.”

“Heights?”

“I don’t like heights much.”

“What happens when you find yourself at a high place?”

Appel hesitated. “I am careful. I stay away from the edge.”

“Do you think about jumping off?” the doctor asked.

“No,” Appel lied. 

“Do you ever dream of flying?”

“I do.”

“When you fly, is it like swimming in the air, or flying like a bird?”

“Like swimming.”

Appel realised that she had trapped her hand between her knees, her usual tactic to stop herself tapping too visibly. 

Should she not do that? 

Would he notice, if she tapped?

Was she supposed to be tapping?

The ache in her skull increased, became a band around her temples and her forehead. 

Doctor Glen paged through his file.

“Your school records show some incidents of outbursts.” He looked at her, clearly expecting some kind of explanation.

“I— um— sometimes when I get angry, or upset, things happen.”

 “Things happen.”  His voice was dry, but the judgement was unmistakable.

Should she not have admitted to that?  But surely, this was the whole reason she was going through this process. So she could get trained, and get control of it all.

“What happened, Appel?”

Appel looked down at her hands again. Her fingers were twitching visibly now, even squeezed between her knees. 

“Sometimes, when I get overwhelmed, my fingers, they, um, they spark a bit.”  Appel licked her lips and swallowed hard. She wished she knew what his records showed. “People don’t like it. It scares them. But I’ve never hurt anyone.”

Doctor Glen made a note, tapped his pen on the notepad, considering her. “Very well,” he said at last. “I need you to give me a demonstration. Have you prepared one?”

Appel straightened up. That was better. She was ready for this.

“Yes, I have.”

“Which exercise did you prepare?”

“The whistling balls.”

The doctor’s eyebrows jumped nearly to his hairline. “A multi-sensory evocation? Are you sure?”

“Yes, please.”

“Very well.”  He made another note. “Whenever you are ready.”

Appel released her hands from between her knees, and flexed her fingers, shaking out the stiffness and stress.

This was easy. She could do this. First, the breathing. Steady, in, pause, out. In, pause, out.

She found her heartbeat, and twisted her head-rhythm around it, smoothing it into place so that her body and her mind were in step with one another. The familiarity of the ritual calmed her.

Now for the hand-shape. She positioned her fingers into the correct shape. One more breath in and then— 

She summoned the light, shaping it into a small, neat globe. Once it was firmly established, she split the light into three balls and set them rotating around one another, each emitting a single breathy note, together forming a pleasing harmonious chord.

She glanced at the doctor.

He watched, face impassive, mind blank. 

“That will do,” he said at last.

Appel allowed the light to fade. 

His flat tone and lack of expression doused her like cold water. She hadn’t realised how much she’d wanted to impress him, to surprise him.

To her dismay, she felt her lips trembling, and her eyes sting with treacherous tears.

Appel forced the feelings down, digging her nails into her palms. She would not cry in front of this man. Her head pounded, the pain so bad she had to fight not to close her eyes and curl up into a ball.

“Well.” The doctor closed his file. “That will be all.  You may go now. We will be in touch with your results.”

Appel blinked at him. “You don’t want me to show you anything else?” 

 “That will not be necessary.”

“But—”  The headache engulfed her, fizzling down her arms to her fingertips. “How can you know what I can do, if I don’t show you?”

Doctor Glen’s expression grew chilly. “I have seen what I need.”  

Appel could not hold it back any more.

Light bloomed from her fingers, expanding in size and brightness well beyond the polite little globes she’d demonstrated before. The light touched the plastic padding of the bench, and instantly the air filled with the stench of singed plastic.

Doctor Glen scrambled to his feet, his chair clattering over.  His mouth moved, but Appel could not hear what he was saying.

All her focus was on controlling the glow. 

The relief of it was intense. The pain in her head was gone in an instant. She hovered on the edge, tempted to let go, to let it expand to its full potential. It bloomed in a whorl of twisting shapes.

Then, slowly at first, then more and more surely, it shaped itself.

As always, she had no control over the shape it took. It was all she could do to prevent it from scorching her surroundings.

The light tapered and twisted, and then, with a blink and a pop, shaped itself into a mirror-image of the doctor.

The same neat hair. The same plastic-framed glasses. 

The two doctors faced one another.

The actual Doctor Glen was stiff with surprise and shock, his Adam’s apple moving as he swallowed and swallowed again. 

The mirror image doctor studied him carefully, face impassive. Its mouth opened, and a cascade of black words emerged, swarming  like insects over Doctor Glen, who gasped and batted ineffectually at the little crawling symbols as they sank into his skin.

This was going too far.

 Appel gathered her strength, and with an effort, dispelled the glow. 

The mirror doctor vanished, leaving behind nothing but the scent of scorched plastic.

“Sorry,” Appel croaked. Her voice was gone. “Sorry.”

Doctor Glen stared at her, white-faced. His lips moved, but no words came out. 

Appel got up from the bench. Her legs felt unsteady. “Can I go now?”

Not waiting for an answer, she opened the door, and left the room. The receptionist tried to get her attention, but Appel ignored her too.

Outside.

She had to get out. Her right hand danced by her side, making patterns in the air, but Appel no longer cared. She kicked off her shoes, leaving them lying as they fell, and pulled her stockings off, hopping first on one foot, and then the other, nearly tripping in her hurry to get rid of the constricting thing.

Where was the exit?

The floor felt cool beneath her bare feet. The fabric of her skirt brushed over her legs as she ran. At last she found the main door. In a moment, she was through, and out into the street.

The high, open sky, the wind on her face.

Her essence, stale and cramped, expanded in relief, extending to find the connections it needed.

Concrete. Tar. Brick. She spotted a crack in the paving where a few scraggly weeds had rooted themselves. A dandelion plant, and a few bits of grass.

She crouched,  touched the leaves. Breathed in the scent of them, rubbed a bit of soil between her fingers.

Better. That was better. 

The pain in her head had receded completely. The stench of singed plastic was a memory only. 

A beetle perched on one of the grass-stalks. Appel watched as it cleaned itself. Its tiny, horny legs moved delicately over its left eye, then its right eye, then scrubbed one claw over the other. 

She could hear it clearly. Its tiny life-force purred contentedly,  a set of perfectly meshed cogs spinning smoothly. The dandelion leaves hummed their song of sun, air and sap, and the soil added its dark harmony. 

Appel let herself return to her body. Allowed herself to feel the concrete under her feet, and the warm sun on her skin. Her breath moved into her, and out of her. 

So. That was what it was like to be tested.

She’d done it. It was done.

Doctor Glen would compile his report.  

Appel did not know what it would contain, and to her surprise, she found that she did not care. 

She chuckled at the memory of his startled expression as he’d looked at his reflection. Then she stood up, and faced the world.

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