"So what are you in for?"
Elizabeth looked up from the book she was reading in her private dorm room. Her gaze traveled up the red and white cane, finally coming to rest on the face of a dark-haired boy near her own age, leaning in her doorway. Sunglasses concealed his eyes, and though his expression was quizzical, it was pointed slightly to her right.
"You're one of the Compensation kids, right? I'm Brian. Blind." He said it as naturally as if he were remarking on the weather. It took Elizabeth by surprise.
She put down her book and stood up. "Cystic fibrosis. Elizabeth," she said with equal nonchalance.
Brian put out his hand. "Nice to meet you."
Elizabeth walked over to complete the handshake.
"So Brenda left us without a babysitter, eh?"
Elizabeth nodded, then remembered he couldn't see. "Yeah, she said something about Crystal being in danger. She ordered us pizza and said she'd be back after dinner."
"Have you met any of the others?"
"The other kids like us?"
"Just a girl named Jenna. Everyone else seems to be busy getting settled in their rooms. I guess many of us are kind of used to being alone."
"Well, we better get used to being a team if we're going to be superheroes."
That surprised a laugh out of Elizabeth. "I guess that's true."
Brian suddenly lifted his chin. "Pizza's here."
Elizabeth's eyebrows lifted. "How did you-"
Brian grinned. "When it comes to food, my nose never leads me astray."
They found the deliveryman in the dormitory lobby. Elizabeth brought the pizzas to a common room with tables and couches, where three healthy-appearing boys were watching TV. They turned off the show when they saw the pizza. Next arrived a girl with long black hair, which only partially hid the scars covering her face, chest, and arms. Behind her was another girl walking with arm braces. A blond boy with a cast was the last to arrive. The group quietly chattered while they opened the pizza boxes and poured themselves plastic cups of cola.
Elizabeth, seeing that they were only eight, left to find Jenna.
"Are you coming to eat?" Elizabeth asked, finding Jenna in her room looking out the window. Jenna rolled forward, her wheelchair guided by subtle movements she made with her neck.
"I've never been away from my Mom before - at least not unless I was in the hospital with nurses everywhere," Jenna admitted.
Elizabeth smiled. "Not invited to many sleepovers either?"
"Some girls were forced to invite me by their moms, but I always had a reason to stay home."
"Well, this isn't like the kids from school. We're all here because we have flaws and weaknesses. We at least have an idea what you're going through. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Something tells me that you won't be needing help for much longer."
Jenna nodded, then cleared her throat. "Usually my mom has to cut up my food and feed it to me. Would you help me?"
Elizabeth smiled. "Of course."
"Would you be able to do it here, or does it have to be in front of everybody?"
"Like I said, I don't think you'll find judgment in this group, but I guess it's up to you."
Jenna thought about it, then nodded.
They returned to the common room to find the rest of the group sitting at separate tables, silently eating their pizza.
"Who died?" Jenna asked, surveying the room. "I thought pizza and no babysitters meant we were having a party."
Brian nodded. "The new girl is right. Elizabeth, get some music, and one of you gentlemen can get the six-packs out of my room."
Jenna started directing people to put the chairs in a circle, while Elizabeth found an old stereo and plugged in her iPod. The scarred girl dimmed the lights, just as a crack of thunder shook the room.
"Does anyone want to play spin the bottle?" Brian called out, to the emphatic discouragement of the rest of the group. "No? How about strip chess?"
"Truth or dare, maybe, but not until I've had a few drinks," Jenna answered, biting a piece of pizza from the fork Elizabeth was holding.
"How about we get all the awkward stuff out of the way?" asked the blond girl with crutches. "We're all dreading having to tell everybody why we're here, why don't we just do it and get it over with."
"That sounds like some sort of sadistic game," Brian remarked, "I'm in."
Once everyone was seated again, the blond girl spoke. "I guess since it was my idea, I'll start. My name is Rayanne and I have multiple sclerosis. It's a brain disease which can attack at any time, anywhere in my body, causing pain, tingling, even paralysis, and I never know where it will strike, or for how long."
Rayanne finished speaking, and the room descended into uncomfortable silence. One of the boys began to applaud, and everybody joined in. With a grin, Rayanne gave a little bow. "Who's next?"
Elizabeth formally introduced herself to the group, summarizing the details of her cystic fibrosis. Jenna went next, explaining that an automobile accident had fractured her C3 vertebrae, leaving her unable to feel or move anything below her shoulders.
The scarred girl's name was Melissa. She had been badly burned in a house fire six years ago.
The boys were next.
"My name is Brian, and I have been sober for three days now," he joked. Someone threw a wadded up napkin at him, which bounced off his arm. "No seriously, though, I was born blind, so I don't even really know what I'm missing. But I hear colours are pretty cool."
The boy with spiked black hair was Jeremy Chan, who had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Next to him sat Curtis Reich, the blond boy with the cast, who had been born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease that made his bones very fragile and easily broken. Nathan Perkins announced that he had a high-functioning form of autism, which limited his ability to read and understand others' emotions, but also made him very intelligent in other areas.
Nyk was the last to speak. He stood, running a hand absently through his shoulder length brown hair. "Many of you have a disease that may shorten your life, and, from your stories, none of you can be blamed for what happened to you, whether it was genetics or an accident. But what I have is contagious, and though I had it before I was born, many people like me are judged as if they could have prevented-"
Nyk was interrupted by a crash of thunder that shook the room. Then the power cut out, leaving the room in quiet blackness. Some of the girls whimpered.
The darkness that left everyone else frozen in fear, went unnoticed by Brian. "Who turned off the music?"