Evan Reverie’s world is unimaginably small. Having spent most of his adolescence in detention, the outside world has been revealed to him primarily through whitewashed history packets, old gossip magazines, action movies, televised sports and the disembodied, AI-generated voice of his deceased father—delivered directly to his ear via a piece of tech called a Guiding Light. What Evan knows well of the world is its cruelty. He knows that it took both of his parents before his sixth birthday; he knows that it gave him few options other than selling drugs to put food in his stepmom’s fridge; he knows that it disappears him and others like him behind towering concrete walls. In The Vanishing Point, a 88,000-word speculative novel set in a region resembling California’s Bay Area, the outside world—of which Evan knows so little but of which he nonetheless dreams—is burning.
A 17-year-old victim of poverty and the carceral state, Evan has cycled in and out of detention since he was nine. Ironically, while imprisoned, he’s closer to family than when he’s free, as two family members work at the facility to which he’s confined. Additionally, all the talk of curing him of his “criminality,” and all the attention paid to him by character assessors, counselors and advocates, has given him the notion that—like the celebrities profiled in the tattered gossip magazines he reads and rereads—he has star quality. When a reality television show descends on his unit at the Haven House for Salvaged Youth, this belief feels validated, and Evan sees an opportunity to show the world that he’s more than a statistic. Unfortunately, Evan’s is not the story that arouses the producers’ interest. Demoralized and desperate for approbation, he requests a transfer to the Redemption Through Fire Academy where, in battling the flames threatening to raze an entire region, he hopes to discover a new path into people’s hearts.
These boys. You’re among them but not of them. You can see that, right? You can spot the differences? And I’m not just talking about the color of your skin. Although that is a difference and, believe me, they won’t let you forget it. And I’m not talking about your so-called privilege. As though you’ve had a single thing given to you without something else being taken away. No. I’m talking about something inside. Something we can’t exactly give a name to, but we know it when we see it. It’s in your eyes maybe. The way they give whoever you’re looking at space to breathe. The way they make us feel at ease in our own skin because somebody out there can see us without fear or anger or whatever emotion it is that makes people look at someone like they’re dirt.
I’m not saying the rest of these boys are bad. They are what this world has made them. Better than most of these staff—grown men and women who’ve been fooled into believing that they have power when the only power they have is to live long enough to prepare kids to die. Men and women whose titles and treatment plans trick them into believing that their lives are worth more than yours. The truth is, they’re not the problem either. They’re just bigger fish swimming in the same polluted waters.
What I’m saying is, there’s things shaping this place, these people. Things you can’t see. Things you can’t even name. And the idea that we, individual people, can change those things has driven a lot of folks to their ends. Why fight things you can’t even name, right? Things you can’t see?
You’ve got to be true to what’s inside of you, to that thing that makes you different. You’ve gotta believe in it and nurture it like you would anything fragile and easily broken. As long as you believe in it, someone else will be sure to see it, too, someone with the power to change your everyday. And one day that person will pluck you up out of this nightmare and put you in a life that, through no shortcomings of their own, these other boys can’t even dream about. After all, you can’t dream beyond this world when this world is all that you know.
Evan Reverie removes his Guiding Light™ earbud. It slips through his fingers and hits the cement floor with a crack. His stomach plummets. Despite having had it for a few years now, he still has a long way to go before it’s paid off.
He reaches down in the dark, his fingertips searching the cold cement until he feels the smooth, plastic-coated lithium bubble up from the floor. He caresses it, inspecting its surface, finds it intact and sighs in relief. He stores the earbud inside its small pocket-shaped pouch, puts it beneath his cot and shifts his position, searching for the valley between the busted springs.
Nights at the Global Group’s Haven House for Salvaged Youth are long, measured not by minutes but by shift changes, by room monitoring, by that moment in which a sob that some newbie has been clutching to his chest like the memory of the last time someone told him they loved him escapes into the gray recycled air, bringing a wry smile to the lips of the sleepless ones who’ve been waiting for someone, anyone but them, to break first.
But nights aren’t so long for Evan. Evan doesn’t cry. He doesn’t toss and turn. He doesn’t wake up gasping for air. Evan sleeps soundly because he long ago realized that the act of steeling oneself, of becoming hard, is not as enigmatic as it seems. In fact, because there’s nothing one needs to acquire, but rather, something one needs to discard, he found the process to be surprisingly easy.
Having noted that the only times he felt like crying were those times when he was disappointed, those times when things hadn’t gone as he’d hoped or planned, Evan simply gave up hoping and planning. And in so doing, he threw a lever, sealing off that soft, jiggly place from which tears spring.
Angry Evan became Level Evan. Level because his emotions didn’t sway like a seesaw. Level because he could no longer be turned up or down or inside out. Level because his face, scrubbed as clean as his conscience, gave away nothing.
This is not to say that Evan doesn’t have dreams, that he’s given up all hopes for his future. Just that he’s given up Haven-House hopes such as maybe someone will visit me this weekend, or maybe my character assessor will release me on tracking, or maybe someone—anyone—will follow through on a promise.
Since he’s let go of Haven House hopes, even the buzz and the click of the lock on Room 23 has been powerless to shake Level Evan.
For the past nine months, Room 23, one of 30 single-occupancy rooms in Unit 2A, has been Evan’s home. Before 2A, he was in a Dignity Home—a name that made all the stats laugh because they couldn’t see any dignity in canvassing the bottoms to save souls for the lord—but he ran from that for the same reason everyone runs—freedom, dangling there like keys left in the ignition, just too close to resist. Before the Dignity Home, he was in Unit 17D, but he wasn’t like the kids in 17D with their meds and their bedwetting and their touching themselves in full view of the staff. The staff must have agreed because it wasn’t long before his Character Assessor moved him. Before Unit 17D, he can’t remember. Maybe he was at his stepmom’s house. He’s had little tastes of outside life, but lacking a place his Character Assessor calls a stable environment, he’s always found his way back here. Now that here is Room 23, he guesses things could be worse, because Room 23 has a secret.
Like all the other rooms in Unit 2A, Room 23 has a cot, a threadbare blanket, a water fountain/sink, a toilet. If the occupant is in good enough standing with the staff—and owing to his self-discipline and disinterest in fighting these hothead stats, Evan’s usually in good standing with the staff—it may contain up to four books or magazines and a journal. Like all the other rooms, Room 23 has a camera, the unblinking eye in the upper left-hand corner that tracks and records every move, scream, sob, and shiver. Like all the other rooms, Room 23 features an 8x12-inch window in the door, and, like all the other salvaged, Evan will catch hell if he looks out that window for too long. That window is for staff to look in on him. If, after a warning, Evan persists in looking out the looking-in window, he’ll get put on a Timeout, which can mean up to 23 hours a day for 14 straight days in Room 23.
However, the Room 23 occupant soon discovers, if, like Evan, he’s the type of salvaged who’s still capable of discovery, that there’s something more to this room than a toilet, a water fountain, a camera, and his dog-eared memories at which to gaze. In Room 23, Evan discovered that if he lies diagonally across the thin mattress and looks out the 8x12-inch looking-in window at an angle, he can see, up above the vertiginous cement walls that enclose the cramped recreation area, a gash of sky. And occasionally, if he’s vigilant, some sign of life—a cloud, a drone, a seagull—might float through his field of vision, loosening the tethers on his imagination.
Tonight, as Evan maneuvers his body around the cot, searching for the sweet spot, he discovers in all that blackness the whole of a crescent moon hanging out like a comma in the night’s narrative, reminding him that time will eventually lurch forward, and that his own story might one day break free from the periods and shoot like a run-on sentence across the firmament. Then he recognizes the hopeful nature of such thoughts, and, like all other Haven House hopes, he lets them go.
He shuts his eyes. Sleep slips its manacles around his mind and he’s gone. Dead like the day.
Evan always wakes up early, at least when he’s inside. On the outside, he can sleep the day away like it’s nothing. All it takes is one toe over that nebulous line, faded like the old photographs of his parents, into fuck-it mode. On the inside, because he’s being watched, things are different, and the staff throw inside lines—more like razor wire that he can’t possibly hurdle without getting cut—into sharp relief. It takes either a callow or a willful set of eyes to miss them, the kind of eyes that staff make it their mission to correct.
This morning Evan rises in time to watch the sun bake the black sky beige. He registers a heaviness in his limbs, which is strange because he can’t remember taking any meds the previous night. He wonders whether a day of rest would make him feel better and considers going to the infirmary, but, unless he’s suffering debilitating stomach pain, he avoids the infirmary, because a trip there means no recreation time in the afternoon. And, just like every salvaged who’s ever been on a Timeout, Evan’s promised himself to take every opportunity to get out of his room. Then there’s the fact that the Fame Awards are on tonight—because he was Worker of the Week, Evan gets to choose tonight’s program. There’s also a game on tonight, and it’s not that he doesn’t want to watch the game, but the game is all they ever watch. Tonight, Evan’s going to watch the Fame Awards, because that world is about as far from this world as he can imagine, and today he wants something to do the imagining for him. Maybe he’s missing his stepmom, or at least missing the freedom to do whatever he wanted to do that came with living with her. It’s not that he’s longing for the old days—those bleak years after Dad died, when staying with her was lonelier than being by himself because, when you’re alone, you don’t notice someone else not noticing you. But he does miss those times when her award shows would float her around the apartment like a helium-filled balloon. If he’s being honest, maybe he just wants to watch Melissa Moondive high-heel her way down the red carpet and brighten all this institutional gray.
Last week in English class, Evan learned a new word: resplendent. He learned that it meant more than attractive or beautiful. It meant those things, too, but it added beauty to a kind of stew with money and glamor and color. Ever since then, he’s been waiting to see Melissa Moondive walk down that red carpet, say that she looks resplendent in her dress, and watch Garza’s puzzled face nod and pretend to know what he’s talking about.
He sits up in bed, slips his feet into his rubber shower sandals, crosses the cold concrete floor to the metal basin and brushes his teeth. As usual, when he spits, the foamy paste is pink with blood.
The cot whines as he sits. He thumbs through an old issue of Salacious Celebrities—published during a time when downtown was still fully above water, a time when rents here were so high, his parents had to commute two hours each way to work. Given its age, the magazine provides him none of the up-to-the-second gossip that he gets during his daily tablet time, but he enjoys reading and rereading the profiles, absorbing bits of cultural history without having to close the million pop-ups that make it impossible to focus and rob him of valuable seconds. Today, he rereads a two-page profile of a stat-turned-celebrity named The Real who, two weeks out of a salvaged-youth facility a lot like Haven House, landed a role in a pilot that was picked up for two full seasons. After that, The Real bought his mom a new house and moved all his closest friends into a converted barracks located on a peak that overlooked the ocean. Evan doesn’t fantasize about doing the same—to do so would be violating his rule against Haven-House hoping—but he does take note of the way The Real’s big-heartedness generated some positive publicity. That’s the kind of revelation that he can use.
The Room 23 door buzzes, clicks and pops ajar. Evan remembers those times when, after a stint in the outside world, the pop of the room door felt like a hood being pulled off his head, allowing him to breathe deeper, inflate those corners of his lungs that single-occupancy oxygen failed to reach. But it never takes as long as he thinks it will to reacclimate to the long night, to rebreathing the same recycled air, to dead, dreamless slumber and to forever time that, through practice, he’s learned to collapse onto itself.
Footsteps clamber across the catwalk and down the stairs as the salvaged assemble themselves on the red line for Daily Expectations. He ambles outside, leans over the chest-high railing, quickly calculates that they’re still waiting on three or four slow risers, and, pretending to have left something behind, retreats to his room. There’s not much power in Haven House for a salvaged who’s averse to throwing hands, especially for a lamb who mostly keeps to himself, but there’s power in keeping them waiting, in making others think that he’s slow to rise, react, and respond. As long as they cling to this misconception, he can take them by surprise.
He stands inside his room, feels the camera’s gaze boring into the back of his skull, counts to ten, and exits without a backward glance. He saunters down the stairs, takes his spot on the red line, and raises his eyes to Uncle Jeff’s unimpressed stare.
Staff Sergeant Uncle Jeff isn’t his blood uncle. He’s his stepmom Justine’s half-brother. Evan had never met him before his first stint at Haven House. But when Uncle Jeff realized who Evan was, he started treating him differently—not like family exactly, but less like a lamb who was beneath his contempt and more like one of the stats in whom he recognized an earlier incarnation of himself.
Uncle Jeff registers Evan’s presence on his tablet. “Thank you for joining us, Reverie. Garza?” he nods at the new, young, daytime staff member. “How bout you get us started.”
Garza stands, tugs at his beige shirt, crosses his arms over his chest. “Okay. So, like, let’s have a good breakfast this morning. No whining, even if it tastes like shit.”
Uncle Jeff clenches his jaw, unable to hide his irritation.
Garza smooths the corners of his mustache, stands up a little straighter and says, “I was excited to watch the game tonight, but Reverie here,” he gestures with his thumb toward Evan, “he’s all about these Fame Awards, and he’s the Worker of the Week, so I guess we gotta watch that.”
“You serious?” says Eric, a lean, wry, vigilant stat with a shaved head and a jagged scar above his left ear. “We can’t watch the game?”
“You know the policy, Williams,” says Uncle Jeff, referring to Eric by his last name. “Worker of the Week chooses the program.”
Evan feels Eric’s glare but keeps his own gaze fixed on the concrete wall.
Garza chuckles, glances at an unsmiling Uncle Jeff and clears his throat. “Anyway, don’t give me any shit and you won’t have any problems with me.” He puts the base of his palms on the table behind him, pushes himself up and sits. “That’s it. That’s all I got to say.”
Uncle Jeff inhales deeply. Evan wonders how long Garza will last in the unit. He remembers a night-shift staff named Buddy who used to rile salvaged up while they tried to sleep, going by their rooms and telling them all the slanderous stuff another salvaged had been saying behind their backs so that, by morning, he’d have whipped a couple salvaged into such a frenzy a fight would break out as soon as Daily Expectations ended. When Uncle Jeff got wind of it, Buddy disappeared—word was that he was put on administrative leave—but Evan had no doubt he’d find his way back into his old job. Maybe he was transferred to another unit, maybe another Global Group facility, but the Haven Houses of the world don’t discard staff for having a sadistic streak.
Uncle Jeff squints. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. They’re delicate, rimless, and swallowed by his thick brows so that Evan can forget he even wears them. “You all know how we do things in here. And you know that what Garza says goes for me as well. You don’t give me any lip, you do what’s expected of you, and you will have no problems in my unit. Now, I want you to get your chow, fill your stomachs, and then fill those heads of yours with some knowledge in Ms. McConnell’s classroom. You will not run clean, consistent programs unless you exercise the biggest and most important muscle in your body...your brain.”
Breakfast is quiet. With just fifteen salvaged currently locked up, there’s only three per table and more than enough food for everyone to have seconds. Still, one serving of powdered eggs and moldy bread is enough to ruin even the most ravenous appetite. Evan manages to hold down a few bites, then pushes the rest around with his spork so staff won’t give him grief for wasting food.
He picks his gaze up and scans the tables. Heads droop like wilting flowers. Those who look up from their meals do so beneath hooded eyes. It’s not that this is a welcome sight, but it’s better than the alternative. Alertness in the early morning signals something on the mind. Sometimes it’s simply the fear of a looming meeting with the character assessor. Other times it’s an intention to seek vengeance or release pent-up rage.
Anger is fast in Haven House; it erupts out of nowhere. One moment you’re playing dominoes and the next you’re at someone’s throat. It’s unnerving. It’s perhaps the biggest reason why Evan worked so hard to let go of hope. He would find himself in the middle of a fight, on fire with fury, and at the same time, a small, sad part of his brain would be frowning, shaking its head, wondering what in the hell he was doing. One time, he was minutes into a scrap, lips and knuckles bloodied, when he heard the voice.
Why are you fighting, Evan?
Five little words, but because it was a question for which he had no answer, it was enough to prompt some serious reflection. He’d checked his ear to see if he’d accidentally left his Guiding Light™ in there, but it was safely stowed in its carrying case. Wherever that voice was coming from, he had no way of stopping it. Furthermore, he had no good response.
Why am I fighting? he wondered as he took a right hook to the jaw and his legs turned to jelly. Laid out on the floor, beneath the shouting and the shoving taking place above him, he wondered who was really in control. If he didn’t know why he was doing what he was doing, that must mean that someone else was pulling his strings. He puzzled over why someone at Haven House—whose mission was supposed to be to fix his broken parts—would want him fighting.
“The fuck you staring at, lamb?”
Evan’s used to this. Even in the morning, when the revolting food and the sporks and the contempt stitched into staffs' faces provoke a powerful lethargy, there’s always someone for whom the simple fact of Evan’s existence proves too much to bear. Today it’s Orion, a skinny newbie who’s swimming in a shirt two sizes too big for him and pulling on a pubescent mustache that looks like it’s made of cactus needles.
Evan blinks, realizes he’s been staring in the vicinity of Orion’s almond-shaped eyes. “Nothing much,” he says.
Orion tugs at Dame, who hasn’t yet looked up from his spork and eggs. “Look at the size of this lamb’s head,” he says. He squints. “He’s got a melon head. How’d he even fit out his mama?”
Dame glances at the place on his elbow where Orion touched him. He shovels some eggs into his mouth and talks while he chews. “You never heard of a C-Section?”
“The fuck is that?”
Dame swallows, shakes his head. “It’s where they cut the baby out.”
Orion frowns. “What you laughin at, stat? I was kidding. I know what a damn she-section is.”
Dame throws his head back and laughs loudly. “C-Section, stat,” he says. “Not she.”
Orion mumbles something under his breath, scowls at his food, shoves the tray into the center of the circular table.
Dame takes another bite. “You do have a big head though, E. Gotta give him that.”
Evan smiles. “It’s true. Got a big brain in this head, too.”
Orion grins. “Not like you use it much,” he says. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be stuck in here, right?”
Evan rolls his napkin back and forth between his still-dry palms. “Yeah, you right about that.”
Dame dabs his lips with his rough paper napkin. “Man, he’s got brains. Not that he uses ‘em for anything useful.” He gulps down a swig of powdered milk. “Ask him someone’s birthday.”
Orion’s brow furrows. “What do you mean someone? Like mine? He with some evil spirits or something?”
“What are you...nah, man.” Dame rolls his eyes, snorts. “Like somebody famous.”
Dame sighs. He looks out the window into the rec area. “Just ask him about a pop star. Someone your little sister’s into.”
Orion rolls his eyes. Evan notes his disappointment. This isn’t going the way he’d hoped it would. Not that he imagines Orion had much of a plan beyond getting a rise out of him and savoring that adrenaline shot that can rip a salvaged out of their morning daze.
“This is stupid,” says Orion. He looks at Evan, smooths the edges of his cactus-needle mustache with his thumb and index finger. “When’s Selena McBride’s birthday?”
Evan grins. “March 3rd. What else you wanna know about her? You wanna know where she was born? Sioux City hospital. Favorite food? Hot dogs and sour cream and onion potato chips. What she wants in a man? A nice smile and hand-to-hand combat training.”
Orion frowns. “What the fuck, man?” he says, throwing his arms up. “How’m I supposed to know if that shit’s true? How do I know he ain’t making it up?”
Dame is shaking his head and smiling. “If E says it’s true, it’s true.” He points.
“This stat soaks up that nonsense like a sponge.”
“It’s not nonsense,” says Evan. “If I wanna be famous, I gotta know how famous people got to where they at. That’s just common sense.”
For a few seconds, Orion and Dame stare at him slack-jawed. Then they look at each other and burst into laughter.
Evan takes it. He knows that they can’t possibly know what’s in him. He knows that between the concrete walls and the fluorescent lighting, the shitty food and the foot fungus, the bad breath and the chronic diarrhea, it’s nearly impossible for the salvaged to recognize in him anything other than a reflection of those things which they despise in themselves. Most of all, what disgusts them is the mere sight of an imprisoned person. It makes little difference that they themselves are prisoners, too. In their minds, their condition doesn’t define them because they know they don’t belong here. This shit is temporary, they say. And, because they’ve never seen other salvaged wearing anything besides their Haven House rags, they can’t help but identify them as the kind of fools who get caught and aren’t clever or strong or brave enough to fight back. That goes double for a lamb, who’s supposed to have resources. Even if he’s poor, a lamb has usually got the sympathies of the character assessor.
Evan pushes his tray toward the center of the table. “You won’t be laughin’ when you see this handsome mug on that TV up there or smiling out at you from your tablet.” Dame and Orion hoot louder, Orion grabbing Dame’s shoulder until Dame shoves his hand off him and Orion topples to the concrete floor. He rolls on his side and continues howling.
“Jackson!” yells Uncle Jeff from his chair at central command. “Jackson! Get your ass back in that seat!”
But Orion keeps laughing, tears streaming out of his eyes. Evan looks over at Uncle Jeff, recognizes the flared nostrils that precede violence.
“Yo, Orion,” he says. “Get the fuck up, man.”
But Orion just rolls over on his side and keeps howling.
Dame, who has also seen this look on Uncle Jeff’s face, lowers his gaze to the table, places his arms on either side of his tray. “Listen to him, stat,” he says. “If you know what’s good for you.”
But Orion is too deep into his performance, unwilling to relinquish his hold on Unit 2A’s attention.
Evan averts his gaze, stares out the window that looks onto the recreation area. The mural on the far wall, depicting a teenage boy sitting inside a pair of cupped hands, is peeling, obscuring the details of the boy’s face. Evan is trying to remember the shape and color of the eyes and whether a tattooed tear once marked his cheek, when Uncle Jeff, a whirlwind of squeaking orthopedic shoes and jangling keys, passes behind him. Evan’s napkin takes flight. When Uncle Jeff moves, he moves the air around him.
Orion’s laughter is swiftly replaced by grunting and shoe soles slapping the ground. “Owww! Get...offa me...you fat...”
Evan abandons the mural, deciding that he deserves to watch this.
Uncle Jeff lifts the boy clean off the ground and shoves him into the wall behind him. Swimming in his green Haven House tee shirt, and with Uncle Jeff’s forearm in his chest and his index finger pointed like a gun barrel at the bridge of Orion’s nose, Orion looks small and scared.
Uncle Jeff’s wide back rises and falls with his breath. “You finished?”
“Get the fuck offa me!” yells Orion, a harmless kick bouncing off Uncle Jeff’s massive quads.
Uncle Jeff leans in closer, applies more pressure.
“Say yes, man,” says Evan. “Say you’re finished.”
Uncle Jeff half turns his head but doesn’t make eye contact with Evan. “You should listen to him,” he growls. “Otherwise, I’m gonna apply some more pressure here.” Uncle Jeff raises his forearm to Orion’s throat. “You skinny as a twig. I go much harder, you liable to snap.”
Orion’s eyes are squinted shut; tears leave tracks of hatred and humiliation on his cheeks. “I’m finished!” he yells. “Lemme go!”
Uncle Jeff backs away and Orion collapses. Crumpled on the floor, he coughs and sputters.
Uncle Jeff’s tone softens. “All right now. You stay there for a minute and collect yourself, but then you’re going back to your table to finish your breakfast.”
Orion wipes his eyes and nose with his shirt’s stretched-out collar. When he lets go, it falls halfway down his chest, exposing his protruding ribs. He stands up, brushes himself off and slumps back into his seat, his chin curling into his naked chest.
It’s been a long time since Evan was new to this, but he remembers the slow process of learning to stand on his own, recalls the bumps and bruises he incurred along the way.
He pushes his unopened milk carton in front of Orion. Orion looks up and furrows his brow. “You want it?” Evan says. “I shouldn’t drink that. My stomach.”
“You can’t drink milk?”
“I’m lactose intolerant.”
Orion squints and wrinkles his nose.
“If I have anything with lactose in it, I get the runs.”
Orion massages the place on his throat where Uncle Jeff had pressed his forearm. “The fuck is lactose?”
“It’s the sugar in the milk,” mumbles Dame.
Orion lifts his head up, stares down at the carton. “I ain’t heard of that, but I’ll drink your milk.”
Evan smirks. “Ask me who else is lactose intolerant,” he says.
A wide grin stretches across his face.
Orion looks at Dame who’s smiling and shaking his head.
“Shit, man,” says Orion. “Who else is lac...” He pauses.
“Inter-tolerant. I got it, stat,” he says, glaring at Dame.
“Whole bunch of people,” says Evan. “Sandman Craig Savage, Missy Creamsicle, Aliya Glamorous.”
“Nah,” says Orion, shaking his head. “The Sandman? He eats stats like you and me for breakfast. You’re sayin he can’t have...”
“Lactose,” says Evan. “He’s allergic to peanuts, too. Lactose just fucks up his stomach. Peanuts could kill him.”
“I told you,” says Dame, laughing. “Like a sponge.”
The three of them chuckle into their chests. Orion takes a swig of milk and then looks around the unit, smiling.