Vy went through the recreation room, shutting off the game console and closing window blinds for the night.  As she thought about the weird encounter from earlier, she glanced outside.

The portico light illuminated the driveway.  Deer often triggered the motion detector.  She had parked her mom’s minivan in an awkward spot, sort of blocking the whole driveway.

Someone was loading Thomas’s wheelchair—and Thomas—into the van.

“Hey!”  Vy bounded towards the front door.

She grabbed her winter parka from the coat closet, but didn’t waste time putting it on.  She rushed into the night.

Cherise stood next to the van’s open rear door, guilty.

“What are you doing?”  Vy shrugged into her parka.  “Neither of you has a license!”

She guessed that this excursion was Thomas’s idea, but it seemed idiotic, especially for him.  He knew that he needed to avoid freezing cold air and stress.  His lungs were too frail to cope with a prolonged cough.  A common cold could land him in the hospital.

“Come on, let’s go into the house,” Vy urged them.  “You can tell me why you were out here later.”

“Vy,” Thomas said from inside the van.  “If you agree to drive us, I’ll tell you the secret of my success.”

Vy hesitated.

Everyone agreed that Thomas knew far too much, even for a once-in-a-lifetime child prodigy.  His knowledge about everyone’s personal secrets seemed inexplicable.  Yet when people asked Thomas how he learned things, he danced around the subject in a teasing way, as if he knew exactly what they thought.  It seemed to amuse him.

Vy had confided in her friends, revealing her embarrassing suspicion that her foster brother—the kid in her care—was a mind reader.  He had an eerie habit of commenting on her unspoken thoughts.  But she doubted she would ever get answers.

Unless…

Was he offering?

“I’m tempted,” Vy admitted.  She laughed dismissively, although it came out sounding a bit false.  “This is about that map the woman handed you, isn’t it?”

Thomas gave a stiff nod.

“To some mysterious location in the middle of the woods, way off the interstate?”  Vy had seen the circled region on the map.  She shook her head.  “Even if it’s a castle full of candy canes and lollipops, we’re not going there.  Not tonight.  That’s crazy.”

Vy listened to enough true crime podcasts to have a solid sense of what to avoid.  Really, any child ought to know better.  Hadn’t Thomas and Cherise ever heard the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel?  Bad people liked to lure innocent people into the woods, where no one could hear them scream.

“She isn’t a witch,” Thomas said.  “And this isn’t a fairy tale.”

That sent a chill up Vy’s spine.  How did Thomas manage to comment on her thoughts with such accuracy?

“If that woman wanted to kidnap me,” Thomas said, “she could.”  He gave a weak shrug.  “I’m one hundred percent sure of that.”

He sounded as self-assured as the nurse practitioners and physicians whom Vy worked with.

“And,” he added, “if she had bad intentions, I think I would have picked up them.  I’m really good at detecting lies.”

Vy folded her arms.  Thomas’s authoritative manner might work on Nobel prize winners, but not her.  Thomas had an honorary degree from Harvard, sure, but she remembered how shy and uncertain he used to be, when he’d first arrived in her mother’s home.

Besides, Thomas was not self-reliant.  He never would be.  Even if his medicine enabled him to live to adulthood, his limbs were permanently disfigured from years of atrophy.  He needed a caretaker.

Thomas clearly wanted to be in charge.  He wanted to be an adult.  But … well, that was not reality.

“We have rules,” Vy reminded him.  “Sorry.”

Thomas’s gaze hardened.  “I never would have invented NAI-12 if I followed rules.”

Vy slumped.  Thomas had worked late nights for years, arguing with her mother about bedtime every single night, until her mother finally caved in.  He had worked around legal and social restrictions.  That was true enough.

The International Association For Neuromuscular Disease called his NAI-12 treatment “miraculous.”  Vy had visited online groups.  Disabled people all over the world were praising Rasa Biotech for its innovation.  They might not all know that Thomas Hill was behind the radical new treatment, but they were praising him.

“Right.”  Vy tried to think of a more solid argument to get Thomas back into the house.

She didn’t want to resort to punishment.  Thomas had ways of retaliating against people whom he perceived as obstacles.  He would spill someone’s personal secret, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“There are unusual weather patterns upstate, where I want to go,” Thomas said in a musing tone.

Vy tried not to show her interest.

She checked several radar apps on a regular basis, so she knew about the consistently low barometric pressure and shifting winds over the western foothills of the White Mountains.  It made for rare cloud formations.  Storm-chasers had recorded extraordinary storms in the area.

“That’s a reason not to go,” Vy pointed out.

Deep down, however, she yearned for firsthand experience.

The various groups of New England storm-chasers would begin to take her seriously if she filmed something awesome.  She wanted an excuse to explore the little-traveled roads in that region.  Perhaps she would discover an unmapped fire road, or private property that she could return to later—and sneak onto?

“Argh,” she said, feeling torn between her desire and her obligations as a caretaker and guardian.

“Your mom might not even notice we’re gone.”  Thomas watched her.  “And if she does?  I promise, the blame is all mine.  You can tell her I blackmailed you.”

It was tempting.

Sometimes Vy felt as if she was stuck in mud.  In her daydreams, she was on the road, far away from her job and her responsibilities.

Someday, she often assured herself.  Someday, she would live in a van, or even in her own apartment, instead of in a decrepit house full of foster siblings with various special needs, plus a mother who wanted to keep the house clean and functional.  Vy was always doing chores or running errands.  She packed school lunches.  She did the yard work and took out the trash.  She bathed and dressed Thomas every day, as well as several other kids who needed help.  Her middle name might as well be “Responsibility.”

Her mother would want her to get some sleep, instead of driving off on some mysterious adventure with Thomas.

But she didn’t have work tomorrow.

And, she guessed, her mother would also want her to stay up all night to keep on eye on the driveway, to make sure Thomas and Cherise didn’t sneak away.

“Please?”

The meek voice came not from Thomas, but from Cherise.

Vy looked at her foster sister, surprised.  Cherise had come to the Hollander Home labeled as mute, as well as a self-harm and suicide risk, but none of those labels seemed to apply to her any longer.  Cherise was quiet, but she could be moved to speak.  She seemed to derive strength from being around Thomas.

“Really?” Vy asked.

Cherise nodded.  She offered the ignition key.

Vy took it and sighed.  She supposed she was going to stupid.

“This had better be worth the trip.”  Vy climbed inside the van and began to secure the wheelchair for a ride.  “And you had better tell me the honest truth.  That’s the deal you offered.  You need to tell me how you absorb information, and you’d better not leave anything out.”