The sight of teenagers made Thomas feel like a xeno-anthropologist immersed in an alien society. Their moods shifted so fast, they seemed iridescent, like butterfly wings.
“Do you ever miss going to school?” Vy asked as they pulled into the crowded parking lot.
“No. School never did anything for me.” Thomas had spent much of his life convincing adults that homework was nothing but a waste of his time. Once he absorbed a tidbit of information, he never forgot it. His memory was as flawless as a digital recorder. He could replay any experience he had absorbed, and study it frame-by-frame.
That was how he cheated his way through life.
That, and his secret telepathic ability.
A couple of athletic boys walked close enough for Thomas to overhear the mental gist of their conversation. They were concerned about an upcoming basketball game, and girls.
Thomas sensed their satisfied exhaustion from basketball practice; nothing that he could relate to. His neuromuscular disease prevented his muscles from gaining strength. He was skeletal and underdeveloped below his neck.
“There’s Cherise,” Vy said.
Thomas peered through Vy’s perceptions. He saw Cherise standing at a curb, waiting for a school bus, and failing to blend in with the crowd of white kids. No doubt she was trying to hide behind her thick bangs and glasses.
Vy rolled down a window and waved. “Hey! Cherise!”
Their dented red minivan was easy to recognize, with its handicap plate. Cherise adjusted her backpack and hurried towards them.
A gangly, smug-looking teenager followed her partway. He leaned close to speak in Cherise’s ear. She sped up, eager to get away from him.
She wasted no time in climbing into the passenger seat of the minivan.
Her mood prickled with humiliation. She knew—and therefore Thomas knew—that the gangly kid acted fake-friendly. No one else seemed to notice his cruelty.
“See ya tomorrow, hottie,” he had said to Cherise. “Maybe you’ll learn to say hi to me.”
Part of Thomas had lived Cherise’s life. So he knew how it felt to eat alone in the cafeteria, with that kid, Roy, staring at her from another table. Sometimes Roy slammed Cherise’s sketchbook shut without warning.
Today Roy had followed Cherise down an empty hallway, between classes. He had lurched at her like an attack dog, screaming, “Show me your tits!” And he’d laughed when she’d run away.
Roy must feel safe. Everyone knew that Cherise hardly ever talked. She wouldn’t report him.
“Stop the van.” Thomas could not reach the toggle button for his window, so he had to add, “Roll down my window.”
Vy had no intention of stopping.
But fate intervened. A group of teenagers crossed her path, and Vy was forced to stop anyway.
She used the driver’s door controls to roll down his window. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Roy!” Thomas called.
!!! Panic spiked from Cherise.
“Roy!” Thomas called, making sure the asshole heard him. “Come here!”
“What are you doing?” Vy asked.
The bully ambled towards Thomas’s open window with an expression of private amusement. “What’s up?” His gaze flicked from Thomas to Cherise, then back again. “Sweet handicap van.”
The icy air made Thomas’s eyes water. He ignored the wind and probed Roy’s mind.
“I saw a YouTube video of you.” Roy smirked. “Baby Einstein, right? Hey, Latina! Your little boyfriend is adorbs.”
“Go away, whoever you are,” Vy said to Roy in a warning tone.
Like planets, minds had ecosystems and biomes. Emotions gave them texture. Memories comprised their structure. Thomas found an eddy of vulnerability in Roy’s mind, and he followed it downward, towards a deep chasm of buried humiliations.
He sorted through the worst memories of Roy’s life.
“Hey Roy,” Thomas said. “I wonder if your mom would pour her vomit bucket over you again, if she saw how you treat Cherise?”
Roy looked as if he’d been punched.
Thomas imitated the shrill, drunken tone of Roy’s mother. “You’ve got to clean your underwear better, baby Roy!” He laughed, imitating Roy’s cruelty.
That caused something like an earthquake of rage.
“Drive!” Thomas said, a split second before Roy’s hands reached through the window to strangle him.
The minivan rolled forward. Roy fell away with a short scream of pain.
“What the hell?” Vy radiated anger. It was partly aimed at Roy, but Thomas sensed that she was also angry at him, for starting a fight.
Her unspoken inner voice felt as delicate as snowflakes. That was awesome.
Behind them, Roy jumped to his feet, roaring mad. “I know where you freaks live!”
“Oh. You’d better be careful in that new Audi you’re so proud of,” Thomas called through the open window. “Your reckless driving is likely going to get you killed.”
“What?” Vy said.
Roy seemed just as shocked. He jogged to catch up with the slowly rolling minivan, his eyes bugging out with fear and rage.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, Roy.” Thomas made himself sound sympathetic. “I can’t help knowing things. Knowledge just comes to me.” He held his weak hands apart. “A bend in the road, and…” He smacked his hands together, although he was too weak for that to make any noise.
Roy looked stricken with terror. Teenagers gathered to watch, curious.
“Sorry.” Thomas let his hands fall. “If your mom gets wasted at your funeral, I hope she doesn’t puke on your coffin.”
Vy stomped on the brake. She radiated fury like a boiling cauldron.
“You lying freak.” Roy looked ugly with fear.
“I never lie,” Thomas said.
Roy’s face contorted. “If—”
“—If you were really psychic…” Thomas spoke in mocking sync with the bully. “…it would be world news or something.”
He could speak in precise sync with anyone. He had sensed every word well up in Roy’s mind.
The window began to slide closed, controlled by Vy.
“Hey!” Thomas glared at her.
“You’ve made your point,” Vy said. “Whatever it is.”
Their minivan rolled towards the road. Behind them, Roy shouted something in a pleading tone. The crowd of teenagers whispered and used their phones to record the scene. One said “…like Professor X?” in a hushed tone.
“I wasn’t done,” Thomas said.
“Death threats are going too far, Thomas.” Vy signaled a turn onto the street. “I don’t know who that kid is, or what he did to you. Or Cherise.” She glanced at their foster sister. “But sometimes you really act like a bully. You can’t go around threatening people like that.”
As if he needed a sisterly lecture.
Thomas curled his fingers into weak imitations of fists. He wasn’t strong enough to toggle the window button, let alone win an argument with his caretaker. But he was sick of being treated like a disabled child.
Most people saw his withered limbs, his concave chest and sagging spine, and they assumed he was helpless.
He supposed it was difficult to respect someone who needed help using a toilet. Vy saw him in his weakest moments. She would probably never take him seriously.
“That kid deserved worse,” Thomas said. “He was threatening Cherise.”
“How do you know that?” Vy glanced at him in the rearview mirror, frustrated and suspicious. “Are you just guessing?”
Thomas growled. Sometimes he thought he should just tell Vy about his ability. She wouldn’t tell the whole world. Probably not.
Thank you. Appreciation glowed from Cherise. She felt safer, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
Thomas relaxed. He could bask in that glow forever. Moments like this made everything else worthwhile.
Their minivan passed the familiar chain-link fences, dilapidated houses, and rusting auto parts of their neighborhood. Thomas saw poverty, and he knew that Vy saw poverty as well. But Cherise?
Cherise noticed a cheerfully painted sled.
She saw a harvest wreath that defied the wintry frost.
She had a way of seeing beauty just about anywhere. Whenever Thomas saw the world filtered through Cherise, everything seemed nice. He loved that.
If only she could stay with him at home, while he used his laptop to fine-tune the medicine he was developing with the Rasa Biotech team. She didn’t deserve to suffer the indignities of school.
Vy cleared her throat. “You said you never lie.”
“Yup,” Thomas admitted.
It was true. He might say misleading things, but he only spoke facts. He had been born with an enormous advantage over other people. As far as he knew—and he knew a lot—no one else in the world could read minds. So if he resorted to telling direct lies, then he really would be a bully. He would be no different than a natural athlete shoving disabled children out of wheelchairs.
“You told that kid that he’ll die in a car wreck,” Vy stated flatly.
Her unspoken accusation was loud and clear. She believed that Thomas had lied.
“No,” Thomas said, correcting her. “If you paid attention to my wording, I was only speculating out loud. I used words such as ‘if’ and it’s ’likely going to.’ I never said he’ll die. He just inferred the worst case scenario from what I said.”
Thomas pretended that he couldn’t hear her low opinion of him. So what if his caretaker believed he was some sort of bully? Vy was wrong.
Of course she was wrong. Most people held wrong opinions about other people. Not Thomas. He saw the truths behind fake expressions and casual fibs.
You took a risk, Cherise thought. I saw kids recording that scene on their phones. It will get passed around the whole school. Might go viral on social media.
“People will assume it was staged,” Thomas said, answering her unspoken concern for him. “No one believes kids.”
He tried not to sound too bitter. Even if his medical breakthrough saved a million lives, people would assume he was a hoax, because he was “too young.”
He needed to get past puberty. In order to do that, he needed to live to adulthood. That meant regular injections of NAI-12, his neuronal apoptosis inhibitor—whether or not it got approved for clinical trials.
“Anyway,” he said to Cherise, “you don’t deserve to be treated like that. It was worth a risk.”
Vy eyed them both with unease, but she refrained from making a comment. She was familiar with their half-verbal conversations.
Everyone in the Hollander Home knew about the strange, unfathomable friendship between Thomas and Cherise. They knew that Cherise spent hours in Thomas’s bedroom after school, doing homework or drawing in one of her sketchbooks. People speculated that Thomas seemed to be reading Cherise’s mind, answering her exact thoughts.
But no one quite dared to state it as a fact. That would sound insane.
Thomas didn’t mind their unspoken suspicions. He liked to keep people guessing. Their unanswered questions imbued him with an aura of mystique, which gave him a little bit of power.
Any edge over other people was leverage. He always wanted more leverage. He used to be truly helpless, as a young disabled child in the foster care system, before he’d gained any scientific credibility. He never wanted to feel that way again.
“What on Earth?” Vy braked the minivan.
A woman stood in their gravel driveway.
Thomas switched his focus to Vy’s perceptions for a better view. It was the blond woman from the audience of his Rasa Biotech panel; the one with dark sunglasses and plastic-looking skin. Her breath made puffs in the frosty air. She wore a black overcoat which contrasted sharply against her curly hair.
“She’s not moving out of my way,” Vy muttered. “Wonder what she wants?”
Cherise said nothing. However, Thomas was close enough to overhear her thoughts, and he sensed Cherise’s speculation that this woman looked like Thomas. She had his coloring.
Also, the same narrow chin and wide forehead.
Was she an unknown, unanticipated family member?
Like … his birth mother?
Thomas’s heartbeat sped up, although he tried to sooth his excitement, reminding himself of how unlikely it was. Ever since he had begun to speak in public, garnering funding for his project at Rasa Biotech, journalists and other celebrity-chasers wanted a piece of his meager fame. He got invited to sell products. Idiots invited him to endorse their crackpot ideas or their lame college projects.
A C.I.A. think tank had even approached him, covertly.
That federal agent had pretended to be a friendly journalist, and Thomas had likewise pretended. He had done his best to act ignorant and childishly innocent, misleading the “journalist” without outright lying to her.
Sometimes he felt like a performer balancing on a tightrope. He needed to maintain just enough credibility to manage a team of neuroscientists. Only that, and no more. Too much hype would put him under a magnifying glass, and if the world found out how he cheated … well, governments and corporations would fight over who got to use him. Everyone who’d praised him would reduce him to a lab rat.
The strange woman might be an undercover agent for some major think tank.
Or she might be a con artist trying to cash in on Thomas’s fame. Maybe she hoped to trick him into believing that she was his birth mother?
She might be the real deal.
A memory haunted Thomas. It was so faded that it might be only a dream, but he had carried it with him for as long as he’d existed.
Frigid cold. Falling snow. A twinned glow from distant headlights. And a woman with curly blond hair, walking away from him, beneath snow-laden pines.
She had left him—a newborn infant—to die alone in the woods.
She never glanced back. No matter how he yearned for her to turn around, he never saw her face.
“I’d like to meet her.” Thomas eyed the stranger without actually looking at her. He peered through the eyes of Cherise and Vy, shifting from one foster sister to the other. “Can we just park here, and find out what she wants?” He fidgeted, signaling to Vy that he wanted someone to undo his straps and lower his wheelchair.