"They're not real," said the boy in the Home's lunchroom.
Jon looked up. "What?"
The strange boy sat on the bench across from him and wordlessly began placing his food onto the table. When the new boy's tray was clear, he lifted it up, exposing the metal bottom. Though it was scuffed in places, the sides were still smooth enough to catch the light. The boy tilted the tray until Jon could see a hazy reflection: a broken and grinning face of a man he'd never met looking back at him. The man's eyes were gone, gouged out, and blood was running down his cheeks.
Jonathan quickly looked away.
"You see it, right?" the boy said.
"Yeah. Can you?"
"No." He put the tray down, and Jon looked up again.
"Then how do you know about them?" said Jon.
The boy shrugged. "I see you. You've got ghost glass in your eye," the boy said simply.
The boy started putting his food back on the tray. "Glass. In your eye. Big pieces of it-- long enough to stab inside your brain and still stick out. I don't know how you got them," he said thoughtfully. "They're all broken and sticking out, like someone shoved pieces of in when you weren't looking. That's why you're seeing things. I bet they look bad, right? Like, you don't ever see any happy ghosts, do you?"
Jon shook his head.
"That's because the glass is messed up. Want me to fix it for you?"
Jon's jaw dropped. "Can you?"
"I think? I don't know. Maybe. Want me to try?"
Jon looked around, as though waiting for someone to direct him, waiting for an adult to give him permission. But the only Staff member around was in the other side of the room, serving lunch to other kids.
"Okay," he said.
The other boy came around the lunchroom table and swung one leg over the bench, facing Jon. A little awkwardly, the boy tilted Jon's head back and reached for his eye. Jon winced, but tried to keep his eyes open. He expected the stranger boy to touch his eye, but to his relief, the other kid stopped just short of touching him. The boy made gentle plucking motions an inch or so away from Jon's face, then gingerly placed the invisible nothing onto the table before starting again.
It was only a minute or so, but it felt like forever, and Jon was beginning to feel silly and awkward about it all when the other boy finally stopped.
"There," he said. "That should do it, unless there's any too far in for me to see. But I think that's everything." He stood back, and Jon blinked and rubbed his face. The lights in the lunchroom seemed a little brighter, but perhaps he was imagining it.
"I'm Tony, by the way," said Tony.
Jonathan opened his mouth to answer, and froze, his jaw hanging open. Surrounding the other boy's head was a writhing halo of broad-leafed ivy. It sprouted from the back of Tony's head and hung loosely in the air around his skull, the leaves barely grazing his hair.
"What?" Tony said.
"Uh. You've got leaves on your head," Jon said, feeling stupid for saying it, but too surprised to really care.
"Huh. Is that what I got?" Tony ran his hand over his hair, and it passed through the leaves like a hologram. "Never could see myself."
"What do I have?" said Jon.
"You used to have black smoke taking up your whole head. Lots of kids around here have black smoke. But yesterday The wind blew some out of the way, and I saw the glass in your eye, and I figured that was what was bugging you." He smiled. "The smoke is clearing up now. I don't know what you'll have when the smoke's gone, but you'll probably feel better."
"Is everybody like this?" Jon said.
"Pretty much. Like, around here, yeah. Go look."
Jon leapt from the bench and ran to the door connecting the lunchroom to the main room of the home.
"Don't just leave your--" Tony gave up halfway through the sentence and started picking up both of their lunch trays.
The main room of the Home was welcoming and warm, with comfortable couches, a roaring fireplace, thick carpets, and earthy colors that made the place feel like a cozy, underground den. The kids who were composed enough to leave their rooms often found themselves migrating to the main room, or to one of the smaller yet-equally-comfortable rooms attached. Jon spilled out of the lunchroom and, for the first time, really saw the other kids at the home.
Some had strange halos like Tony did. The black girl whose name he couldn't remember had a head full of weird, cartoony gremlins-things. She laid on the floor, drawing, and the cartoony monsters danced around her head like little cheerleaders. One in particular was close to her shoulder, looking down at what she was drawing, like it was waiting for something. The yellow-haired girl next to her had eyes that chugged out gray clouds like a smokestack. Through the trailing smoke, Jon could barely make out shadowy creatures with yellow eyes. That one girl who'd come to the home the same day as he did-- Citly or Citaly or something-- had a head full of glowing flowers. Pink and white lilies, blue little spotty flowers, yellow daisies-- they sprouted around her while she cheerfully read a book.
Most of them didn't have the strange halos. As he watched, a boy whose name he didn't know, but recognized as one of the kids who took their meals to their room, came down from upstairs and headed for the lunchroom. The top of head, from the nose up, was completely engulfed in a pitch black cloud with flashes of lightning striking through. Though the smoke obscured much of his face, Jon saw him turn to look at him as he passed.
"Yeah?" said the boy.
Jon paled. The boy's mouth dripped out burning, yellow lava.
"Nothing," Jon said.
The boy turned away, head down, and the smoke grew a little darker. The lighting streaking through it grew a little more active.
"You see them?" Tony said, coming up beside him.
Tony grinned. "That's great! Hardly anybody else sees them. Ms. Olivia does, and I think a lot of the other Staff do too, but I haven't met another kid who does."
"What's wrong with them?" Jon said.
"Who knows? Lot's of stuff. Like, everybody's got their own problems messing up their heads." He paused while a small girl passed by, her open mouth dripping liquid-like beads of many colors. On some level, Jon knew that her mouth wasn't really open, and that there were no strange glassy beads, but there they were, and there she was, spilling onto the floor and vanishing before they could hit.
"Some have it worse than others," Tony said.
"What do we do?" said Jon.
"Can we help them? Like how you helped me?"
Tony frowned. "Sometimes. Mostly, no. Yours was easy. Like I said, there was just ghost glass in your eye. But a lot other kids have weirder problems-- stuff inside their head that's messing them up."
Jon watched a boy with black holes for eyes trudge past, moving like a sleepwalker. His mouth was set in a perpetual scream, though no noise came out. Beneath the hollow, alien-like features, he could barely make out a perfectly normal face beneath, a face that looked sleepy and a little sad, but otherwise fine.
"So we just do nothing?" said Jon.
"Tell you what," said Tony, "We can keep an eye on them, the way the staff do. We can make a list of who's got what, and if it looks like something we might be able to fix, then we can fix them. Who knows?" He shrugged and gave a small, slightly awkward smile. "I didn't know I could help you until the smoke moved away. maybe we can help some of them and don't know it yet."
Jon tore his eyes off the hollow-eyed boy and turned them first to Tony's ivy halo, then his face, open and honest.
"Okay," he said. "We can do that."