Leaving the Governor's Estate so late at night turned out being simple for Raina and Melanie. Although there was usually a guard around the door to check all guest's identification cards and invitations, they usually took a leave of absence during the middle of the night, with a security camera seen as enough to handle any intruders who showed up at unexpected hours. If a member of the Powell family was seen leaving, no questions were usually raised so long as they could come up with reasonable explanations for going out so late, and Melanie already knew what she would be telling her parents in the morning.
The only thing slowing them down was how Raina kept staring at everything she laid eyes on. The colors on the walls were always the first thing she noticed, whether they were pale like the upstairs hallways or dark red like the dining hall and recreation room. Almost as fascinating to her were the pictures and paintings framed on these walls. She caught around thirteen different pictures of Melanie there, half of them taken when she was a little girl and showing off her dozens of expensive dresses and blouses, while the other half showed her mostly in standard academy business suits, with only one showing her in a satin red evening gown. Isabella and Kevin took up most of the others, showing them everywhere from government dinner parties to their own bedroom.
However, there none of either herself or Vincent. Kevin once said that no one wanted to look back on how an incompetent looked in the past because they were always worse off than they were in the present. Raina now understood what he had meant.
"Raina, quit being so slow!" Melanie complained. "Do you want to get out here soon or not?"
"Of course, I want to," Raina replied. "I just want to get a good look around the place before I do so. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Save that for when Mom has gotten over her shock of discovering what readjusters are," Melanie said. "Right now, we've got to hurry up if we want to get you over to Cordelia's safely enough."
"Okay," Raina said, a little annoyed. However, she knew Melanie had a good reason for rushing her.
"And don't forget to put your sunglasses on as we leave," Melanie said.
Raina sighed, placing them on now so she wouldn't forget later. Now that she could see, the sunglasses seemed to block her view of things more so than helping make them clearer. They may prove to be helpful when the sunlight got too heavy, or for hiding your identity, but other than that, Raina could think of no other reason why a sighted person would want to wear sunglasses.
And as they exited the Governor's Estate, Raina found herself amazed as she stepped into the beautiful night, where she could see dozens of stars in addition to a full moon. When they got through the gate, Raina slipped her sunglasses off, wanting to take in a good nightly view for the first time.
"Everything here looks a lot like what I'd see in my visions," she said. "But with all the air blowing through me, and having you around, all this feels much more real. Thinking about what I saw then, it seems like looking at a picture on the wall in comparison to what I see now."
"It's not enough just to look at something, Raina. It's the combination of both seeing and feeling something that makes these experiences so great," Melanie said. "If you're only looking without feeling like you're actually there, you may as well be watching a web video."
This comparison had Raina chuckling. "So, you think I've just been watching web videos all along?"
"Who knows?" Melanie said with a smile. "The point is, I think you were missing out on the feeling part when you had these visions."
"Yeah." Raina then took a deep breath as she stared up into the sky, letting herself take in the fresh air that seemed a vital part of this sensory experience, while Melanie was left wondering once again. Little things like being unexpectedly touched by another person could hurt Raina now, but being out here, almost completely alone and with shadows and strange noises all over the place, made her feel happy. She didn't think she would ever understand how this was for her.
But of course, you won't, she thought. Raina has been blind her whole life. All she's been going through lately is both amazing and scary at the same time. You can't expect to understand her preferences that easily.
"So, Melanie, how will we be getting over to Cordelia's?" Raina asked.
"There are always cabs going around at night. We could get someone to give us a ride very easily," Melanie said.
Then, just as she said this, Melanie took out a rubber band from her pocket, grabbed a hold of the middle part of her hair through her fist, and started tying it up with the rubber band. When she was done, she put on an old baseball cap, an accessory still popular among teenagers despite the low interest in recreational sports.
Seeing her do this so quickly wasn't so surprising to Raina. In the past, Melanie would sometimes fix up Raina's hair and be done with it in less than a minute. People were always giving her complements on how good she was at fixing her own hair, and even now that she had it tied up in a ponytail that was largely concealed by the baseball cap, there was no denying that it still looked great.
"Trying to disguise yourself a little, Melanie?" she asked.
Melanie smiled. "Everyone's used to seeing the governor's daughter with her beautiful blonde hair going down to her hips. If they saw me in a ponytail and cap, they would probably mistake me for a regular old teenager looking for trouble at the night clubs."
"I thought people wore fancier stuff at these night clubs."
"That was in the old days, Raina. Now, night clubs are considered low brow; more suited for those looking for cheap thrills on a weekend. The places where you find people dressed up are in private parties and ceremonies," Melanie explained.
"Thanks for the lesson," Raina said. "But how will you explain who I am?"
"Cab drivers nowadays hate asking questions that aren't related to how much they'll get paid. Most likely, if you keep quiet and don't give them a hard time, they won't bother you. Not even if you're disabled."
"And how do you know that?"
"I once got on a cab with Vincent to run an errand for Mom. The driver looked as if his presence made him uncomfortable, but he still didn't say anything mean to him or to me. It was quite a relief, since I wasn't sure what to expect at the time."
Raina was relieved to hear this. Given her condition right now, she didn't know if she could handle a nasty confrontation from a competent. Chances were, she could be twice as powerful as she normally was, and she could end up putting them in a coma.
"But if anything does go wrong with them, don't get too upset. I'm not afraid of giving these bullies a piece of my mind if I have to," Melanie assured her.
They were now on the open road, seeing two cabs drive past them. The drivers barely took notice of them, leaving before either of them could make a signal for them to come over.
In Elms, most people seemed afraid of setting foot outside between sunset and sunrise. And if they did, you rarely ever saw them alone. They always had at least one other person along to make it bearable. And if they had money along with them, they would usually take a cab in place of driving or walking in the dark. Because of this, overnight cab driving was considered a beneficial business for those in the lower professions. Academies for the average even had classes for interested students, because even those who could enter better jobs sometimes liked doing this for supplemental income.
But the third cab that came by stopped immediately upon seeing Melanie waving her hand around. And when she peered through the window to get a look at the driver, she was in for a surprise:
"Melanie, what are you doing out so late?" asked the driver.
It was Mr. Lockwood, the father of Melanie's school friend, Patricia. He worked as a bookkeeper at an attorney office, which was considered work of the lower professions. However, because of the work ethic he imposed upon his three children, the two oldest were now attending academies for the exceptional, while his youngest was thriving in primary school. Melanie had been getting along with Patricia for years, in large part because unlike some other girls at the academy, she wasn't constantly picking on the incompetent. She wasn't fully accepting of them, and would keep her distance from Raina and Vincent wherever she came over for visits, but she never bullied them either.
"Hi, Mr. Lockwood. Since when have you been in the cab business?" Melanie said.
"Get inside," Mr. Lockwood whispered. "A young lady like yourself shouldn't be out so late." And looking directly at Raina, he added in, "Especially not with your mother's ward around. There's probably no better way for you to get yourself into a scrape than by doing that."
The two girls got inside the cab, with Melanie gripping Raina's hand as they did so. As this was Raina's first time in a cab, she was startled by the limited space inside the vehicle, with hard, grey seats and a bitter, burnt smell that lingered in the air, differing very much from the spacious limos she'd occasion ridden in before.
"Not liking it very much here, Raina?" Melanie asked, noticing how she was frowning as she looked around.
"It just seems so different from other vehicles I've ridden in," Raina said.
"Are you girls well-adjusted in there?" Mr. Lockwood asked.
"Oh yes, Mr. Lockwood," Melanie answered. "It's just taking a little time for Raina to get used to it."
"Okay," Mr. Lockwood said, trying not to look directly at Raina. "So, where do you want me to take you."
Melanie took out a piece of paper from her bag and scrawled out Cordelia's address with a pen. She then handed it over to Lockwood, saying, "I wrote the address right here. We're going over to meet up with Raina's piano teacher, since she has some important things to go over with her."
"But why so late at night?'
"The lessons will probably take up much of tomorrow, so she thought it would be best for Raina to stay in overnight."
Lockwood nodded with an uncertain look, then placed his hands around the steering wheel and said, "So, prepared to take off?"
"Yes," Melanie answered.
Lockwood turned his eyes on the road in response, starting to steer away. Raina started looking towards the window as he did so, noticing that there wasn't a single other person in sight within the streets. The faster the cab went, the more thrilled she found herself feeling. In the past, most of these thrills came from the vibrations she could feel coming through her seat, making her aware of the pace it was going through. But now, the empty streets gave her an unusual sense of excitement, as if she was about to embark on a journey in which the outcome couldn't be predicted, but would remain nonetheless unforgettable.
"Raina, try not looking out the window too much," Melanie advised. "You might draw Mr. Lockwood's attention if you keep doing that."
"So, what do you want me doing? Standing straight in my seat and staring blankly into the cab's middle?" Raina asked, starting to get frustrated with Melanie's constant demands.
Melanie sighed. "Just try appearing as normal as possible. If you want to look through the window, just limit how long you do it. I'm not going to stop you from doing something if it doesn't raise too much questions."
Raina gave her a small frown and went back to staring at the window. She knew Melanie meant well, but she wasn't going to let her boss her around too much.
Turning to Lockwood now, Melanie said, "Do you mind if I ask you some things?"
"Go ahead. Being around silence for so long can get bothersome after a while," Lockwood said with a smile.
"How long have you been in the cab business? Did you get into recently, or have you been doing it for a while now?"
Lockwood didn't say anything for a while, probably wondering whether it was appropriate to answer that question. Then, he said, "I started two months ago, and let's just say it wasn't voluntary."
"Is something going on at work?" Melanie asked.
In a low voice, Lockwood answered, "There have been two layoffs at the firm recently, with both a lawyer and a secretary being dismissed. And rumor has it, there will be more in the months to come. But no one's really sure why that's happening."
"Mom says that most layoffs occur when a business is facing debt of some kind. Either that, or because of a scandal that could leave many employees looking bad regardless of whether they were involved in anything."
"Well, your mother has got it mostly correct. But my fellow employees have their own ideas."
"And what are those?" Melanie asked.
Mr. Lockwood turned cautiously towards Raina, and thinking that she might be ignoring their conversation, continued on in a low voice, "We had a number of incompetents come into the firm as workers five years ago. They weren't doing anything major; mostly just custodial work or fetching papers or coffee for the attorneys. But now, some people at the firm got it into their heads that having the incompetents there is costing the firm money, or that perhaps the government is forcing them to stay and wanting the more qualified employees going elsewhere."
Melanie shock her head. "I don't think that's possible. The government doesn't usually show a preference towards disabled workers. If anything, they're usually willing to let employers dismiss them when newer, competent job candidates start applying." This was a fact that had been given to her at the academy, and which her mother had confirmed to be true based on past business records.
"Well, that probably won't be enough to convince some people over at the firm. One of them says they'll be putting together a petition to have at least half of the incompetent workers out if the firm is facing a crisis of some kind. Another fellow, who entered the cab business with me and is otherwise quite a good guy, said that he's so upset about this that he would never provide an incompetent services even if his paycheck depended on it."
Raina now turned back to the window, not wanting to hear more of the conversation. Of course, there were always cruel bastards out there who liked using the disabled as scapegoats for no good reason, but that didn't make them anymore powerful or intelligent than she and many other disabled people were, she kept trying to convince herself. But yet, this didn't make her feel any less angry or hurt. In fact, the more she thought about others like herself and Quinten having to put up with people like Mr. Lockwood was describing, the more she felt her heart racing and her body temperature, making it seem like once again…
Lockwood then put the taxi to a stop, placing what looked like a damp cloth across his forehead while softly panting.
"Is everything all right, Mr. Lockwood?" Melanie asked.
"I may have to stop by the convenience store to buy a drink, Melanie. I'm diabetic, and my blood sugar can run either too high or low when I least expect it. Do you mind waiting for a while?"
"I'm okay with that. If this concerns your health, then you need to take care of your own needs first," Melanie said.
But strangely enough, upon hearing this (and knowing what she was probably doing), Raina couldn't feel much pity for Lockwood. Those diagnosed with diabetes during adulthood weren't declared incompetent if it wasn't debilitating enough, and Raina now felt a sense of resentment she wouldn't usually experience upon meeting a person like this. He must be glad he's not one of us, she started thinking. Then maybe he'd be the one all the others at work would want fired, or he wouldn't have kids that were attending the academy. But if he'd been diagnosed earlier, or if his diabetes were more severe, he could easily have become another incompetent, another scapegoat for the privleged competent.
And so, as she watched Lockwood walking away with his face pale while frequently breathing in and out, she only frowned. Whether what she was feeling was the result of her readjustment or just a greater sense of self-awareness didn't seem of much concern to her. People kept pushing her around, even if not intentionally, and she was tired of letting it happen and feeling guilty when her powers had that strange effect on their minds.
Strangely enough, just as she thought about this, she saw a familiar figure passing by. She didn't recognize who it was at first, but once the person and their companion turned toward the cab to see her, she immediately noticed that it was Quinten, followed along by who she could only guess to be Colleen.
"Raina?" Quinten asked once he knew it was her. "Why are you out so late. Did you just…?"
"Yes," Raina said. "I've gone through everything you told me about."