Vy peered into one room after another. A grandfather clock ticked steadily in the darkness. Another room had a peculiar dining room set, with a huge table and doll-sized chairs.
Vy did a double-take. Those ladder-back chairs might actually be normal in size.
It was the rough-hewn wooden table that was enormous.
She gazed into the darkness of the hall, feeling a bit like she had entered a rabbit hole into Wonderland. How safe was it, to meet an ultra-strong and wealthy giant whom Thomas characterized as being in need of “help”?
Thomas rolled next to her. “I’ve absorbed skills from dozens of psychologists and psychiatrists. I’ll know more once I get within range of Ariock, but I’m confident I can help him.” Thomas gave her a critical look. “Uh, you could use some preparation, though.”
The more Thomas told Vy, the more preparation she wanted. It sounded as if Ariock had learned about the outside world only through TV and the internet. He had not left his house for more than a decade. He feared people staring at him, in the same way that Thomas feared that his secret telepathic power would be discovered and exploited.
Ariock was the same age as Vy, yet he lacked any equivalent life experience.
“So he was home schooled?” Vy asked.
“Sort of,” Thomas said. “Lynn did hire a private tutor for him. But the tutor kept staring at him, and when she posted a photo on social media without his permission, that was the last straw.”
“That’s terrible.” Vy had trouble imagining such a rude tutor. So what if Ariock was oversized? People came in all shapes and sizes.
“You’ll understand when you see him,” Thomas said with certainty. “It will be hard not to stare. Please do your best.”
Vy studied Thomas, wondering what, exactly, he had picked up from Lynn’s memories. “Do you suspect that Ariock is a mind reader, on top of his growth disorder? Is that why you want to meet him?”
Thomas laughed. “No.” He considered the question. “I don’t know what secrets are in Ariock’s mind. But I want to find out.” He eye-gestured around, indicating oil portraits and tapestries. “I was sent here for a reason. Lynn is ordinary, more or less. She married into this family. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t have any special secret abilities. But there has to be something salient about this family that I’m supposed to learn, and Ariock is the only other person who lives here. And he’s a legit Dovanack. By blood, I mean.”
Vy paced past statues on pedestals, and a nineteenth century oil landscape. Judging by the dust-filled rooms, Ariock might be the last Dovanack.
The carpeting muffled footsteps, but they all noticed the stout figure of Lynn approaching.
“He’s ready.” Lynn sounded less than certain about that. Nevertheless, she made an inviting gesture, and led the way forward.
The corridor made an angled turn. They passed several more spacious rooms that were dark and silent before Lynn stopped at a tall doorway.
She took a deep breath, as if steeling herself. She assessed Thomas, Cherise, and Vy, as if searching for flaws.
“Please be kind,” Lynn told them.
Of course. Vy nearly said that out loud, defensive. What sort of rude jerks did this woman take them for?
Before she could think of a nice way to reassure Lynn, the older woman led them into a room that was nothing like the rest of the house.
A big screen on the wall played an episode of one of Vy’s favorite shows, although the volume was muted. The furniture was truck-sized, but otherwise, it was plain and sturdy, not a bunch of overly ornate antiques. A lofty ceiling accommodated an indoor balcony which faced an enormous glass wall.
Snow sifted down beyond the glass. The snow was accumulating, and Vy frowned, afraid that she would have trouble driving home.
“This is the sky room.” Lynn padded across the beige carpet. “There’s a view, although you can’t see it right now.”
Perhaps Lynn was trying to distract them from the size of the furniture? There were two sofas, each wide enough to seat all eight children fostered in the Hollander Home, plus Vy and her mother. If she sat up there, she felt sure that her feet wouldn’t touch the floor.
Otherwise, this room felt like her own world. Photographic prints of cityscapes adorned the walls. The sky room looked comfortably modern.
“Ariock?” Lynn faced a shadowy area beneath the indoor balcony. “These are the visitors.” She gestured to each of them in turn. “Thomas, Cherise, and Vy.”
He sat in an armchair.
At first Vy was confused, because Ariock looked normal to her, not at all monstrous or freakish. His bold features and dark hair showed a family resemblance to the painted portraits of other Dovanack family members.
However, as Vy drew closer, the rules of perspective seemed askew. His size didn’t mesh with his distance away.
His shoulders must be as wide as a snowplow. His huge hands would have trouble with things like computer keyboards or cell phones. The armchair fit him, but he hunched in it, as still as a statue.
Thomas powered his wheelchair next to Vy. “We’re not going to snap your photo,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I promise.”
The giant made no response. Only his deep-set eyes moved, locking on Vy as if he expected an assault from her. He seemed determined not to move or breathe.
“I trust them,” Lynn assured her massive son.
Thomas whirred closer, no doubt putting himself within range to read Ariock’s mind. “I know it’s hard to believe,” he said, “but we didn’t come here looking for you.”
Ariock looked suspicious.
“I swear.” Thomas parked his wheelchair. “I came here looking for my birth family. But I’m a mind reader, so I couldn’t help but soak up info about you.”
Vy studied the giant, wondering if he was truly as strong as Thomas had insinuated. Ariock did look capable of picking up the nearby refrigerator and tossing it around. But it was hard to believe. As a nurse, Vy understood that untreated gigantism led to enfeeblement, since the relentless growth outstripped several limits in the design of a human body.
A giant of Ariock’s size would normally suffer from scoliosis and joint abnormalities. Yet he looked quite healthy.
“My foster sister doesn’t mean to stare,” Thomas said in a pointed tone. “She’s sorry. Right, Vy?”
“Oh!” Vy forced herself to look elsewhere, cheeks hot as she realized the clinical way she had been studying Ariock. “I’m really sorry.”
It was hard not to stare. Despite the stiff way Ariock held himself in the armchair, there was majesty in his sheer size.
“Anyway,” Thomas said, “as I was saying, I thought that maybe I’m a distant Dovanack relative or something. We have the same eye color. Don’t you think?”
Vy looked from one to the other. That was remotely possible. Both had an unusual hue that was somewhere between the color of wine and lavender, although Ariock’s eyes were several shades darker; more like storm clouds over the mountains than lavender.
“Well.” Lynn folded her arms and assessed Thomas. “You’re not my son. I would remember if I’d given birth to anyone other than Ariock.” She seemed defensive. “And by the way, Ariock was a normal-sized baby, in case you were wondering.”
The question had crossed Vy’s mind.
“Our family is normal,” Lynn went on. “Boring and normal, like I told you. There were no hidden relatives or out-of-wedlock secret births. Really.”
Vy thought she was protesting a bit too much.
Thomas seemed to think so, too. He had a speculative look on his face.
But whatever he was picking up from Ariock’s mind, it seemed to put the brakes on his line of questioning. “Okay,” he said, “we don’t seem to be close relatives. But we do have something in common.”
“What?” Lynn sounded wary and mystified.
Thomas lacked the strength to move his arms, but his fingers twitched, indicating himself and Ariock. “We’re both freaks.”
If that was calculated to cause offense, it worked. Lynn puffed up in outrage.
But Ariock, oddly enough, looked relieved. It was as if he’d expected someone to say the insult out loud. Maybe he was glad that someone had identified the elephant in the room, so to speak.
Vy noticed a normal-sized bench seat, and she sat. If she got comfortable, maybe Ariock would relax a little bit.
“You must think we’re terribly rude,” she told him. “We barged into your house. Now Thomas is insulting you. If you want to kick us out, I totally understand.”
Ariock looked cautious.
“Here’s the thing,” Thomas said to Ariock, ignoring Vy. “You think you’re mutant. But guess what? I’m weirder than you. Compared to me, you are completely ordinary.”
Ariock’s suspicion returned. He plainly did not believe Thomas.
“The only non-standard thing about your mind,” Thomas said, “is your propensity for making clueless, baseless assumptions. Like, my friend Cherise isn’t judging you.”
Vy glanced at her foster sister. She hissed in a breath. Of all people, she had not expected Cherise to stare rudely at the giant.
“Cherise is an artist,” Thomas said. “She looks at everyone that way. She sees someone impressive, not a circus freak, the way you’re thinking. She’s impressed.”
Vy groaned. Could Thomas and Cherise get any more rude?
“You need a major reality check,” Thomas said to Ariock. “Several reality checks, in fact. Like, guess what? Your mom is not silently praying for a vacation. She loves you. She wants to spend more time with you.”
Lynn gawked. She looked speechless.
“Also.” Thomas gestured at Vy. “My caretaker is not an angelic visitor from the land of TV celebrities. She doesn’t need extra praise about how pretty she is. I would appreciate it if you focus less on her, and more on me.”
The humiliation on Ariock’s face was almost comical.
“Oh my god.” Vy jumped up, certain that her cheeks were even more red hot than Ariock’s. “This is… we can leave. I’m so sorry.”
She wanted to keep babbling apologies … but she trailed off, because Ariock looked amused. He studied Thomas with silent fascination.
“You’ll always be different from other people,” Thomas said. “Same as me. But so what? We’re not that different. We’re still human.”
Without moving a muscle, Ariock inspected one of his immense hands. He seemed to want them to go away and leave him alone.
“I do understand,” Thomas said. “I’ve devoted my life to inventing a cure for my fatal disease. But there were times when I nearly gave up. I haven’t always been sure that the effort was worth it.”
He didn’t seem to care who listened, but he had everyone’s attention. Even Lynn looked interested, despite herself. She perched on the bench seat next to Vy.
“Back in May,” Thomas said, “my research kept hitting dead ends. I thought I would die in adolescence. And worse, I thought I had wasted my whole life. I’d given up on having friends, or having any sort of a pleasant life, because I was chasing a dream that seemed like it would never come true.”
Vy recalled Thomas’s depressive episode. He had stopped eating for a few days.
“So,” Thomas said, “I decided I might as well make the most of my final months.” He gestured around the sky room. “Sort of like how you’ve made yourself comfortable here. Might as well, right?”
Ariock looked rapt.
“I spent as much time as possible with Cherise.” Thomas said. “We went on family trips. Like, we went boating, and on a drive up the seacoast. Things like that.” He tapped his head. “I absorb other people’s lives, so I’ve experienced all kinds of things, but for me, firsthand experiences are a lot more meaningful. And rare.” He looked towards Cherise. “She saw that I’d given up. And she refused to watch me die.”
Vy studied the two of them. She had never imagined that Cherise had something to do with Thomas’s medical breakthrough.
“She insisted that I work,” Thomas said. “Not in words, but it was in her mind. Constantly.”
Vy supposed that would be hard for him to escape.
“Her nonstop insistence got me to try again, even when I’d given up,” Thomas said. “So I scrapped my whole approach. I stitched together my own pastiche of methods from the scientists I’d worked with, and I went off on a radically different tangent.” He nodded towards the medicine case in the pocket of his wheelchair. “I’m going to live to adulthood because of Cherise. She saved my life.”
Vy gazed at her foster sister with newfound respect.
“I just met Cherise less than a couple of years ago,” Thomas said. “I believed it was impossible that anyone would care about me that much. If it’s possible for someone like me? Then trust me, it’s definitely possible for you.”
The skepticism on Ariock’s face was heartbreakingly painful.
He was wrong. Vy could tell that much, even though she wasn’t a mind reader. Ariock’s bookshelves were stuffed with novels, movies, and video-games that she recognized. Some were her favorites. Clearly, he had good taste.
She noticed an oversized computer keyboard, plus a monitor. Ariock was not a complete stranger to culture.
“Honestly?” Vy told him. “There’s a lot of cool stuff here.” She gestured around. “This whole room is awesome. It’s so different from the rest of the house.”
Ariock looked as if he was bracing himself for an insult.
“He made the furniture himself,” Thomas told Vy. “He figured out how to put things together from online tutorials.”
“That’s incredible!” Vy stood, gawking at the giant-sized furniture with fresh appreciation. None of it looked homemade. It had sturdy, rustic charm, but it was plainly crafted with professional expertise. “Wow.”
Ariock looked cautiously proud. His mother watched him as if witnessing a rainbow in the middle of winter.
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “He might lack formal schooling, but he more than makes up for it in creative—”
A concussive blast drowned him out.
Freezing wind gusted towards Vy, icy with snowflakes. The glass wall was gone.
Armored figures strode through the maw where the wall should be. Their high tech bodysuits gleamed pearlescent white, with glowing interfaces, contoured to their athletic physiques. Some of them wore additional bulky gear on their arms.
Three jogged left. Three jogged right. All of the figures moved with eerie coordination, and the final three leaped onto oversized furniture, climbing straight towards Vy and her friends.
A black web flared around Vy before she could consider how to react.
Each segment telescoped, generating offshoots. Vy tried to thrash it out of her way. But the thing clung to her like cobwebs, stretching like rubber instead of breaking, impossible to brush aside. It sealed all the way around her.
Rubbery segments cinched tighter and tighter, until she lost her balance and crashed painfully to the carpeted floor.
Lynn struggled on the floor, encased in a similar net.
“What…” Thomas did not finish his sentence. Blue smoke engulfed him. He slumped sideways, as if his frail muscles had all quit at the same time.
Cherise dropped as well, struggling in a net.
He was formidable, like a living wall. He had to tilt his head to avoid hitting the balcony overhang.
Vy wanted to warn him that there was danger. Her throat felt frozen, and all she managed was a strangled sound. Lynn whimpered. That blue smoke drifted around them.
Darkness narrowed Vy’s vision.
Stay awake! she silently screamed at herself.
Ariock seized the refrigerator and ripped it away from the back wall. Vy could hardly trust her own eyes. Ariock spun the fridge, preventing the door from falling open … and with a grunt of determination, he hurled it at the intruders.
The fridge sailed over an end table.
The intruders scattered with inhuman speed, as fast and agile as cockroaches.
Ariock’s fridge slammed into the couch, and fell with a thud that shook the floor. Vy wanted to appreciate that. But her veins filled with ice. She felt drugged, dizzy and cold.
Multiple nets unfurled around Ariock.
He tore them, ripping a few, but more nets unfurled. Ariock seemed to be losing energy. The blue smoke was beginning to effect him, too. He slumped to his knees. Black nets cocooned his body, leaving only his head free.
What the… Vy struggled to think of why they were victims of an attack.
What could Thomas possibly have done to deserve this? Whose fault was this? Did blame matter?
Her brain refused to generate answers. All she knew was that it was wrong. She was innocent.
As the darkness of unconsciousness closed around her, she clung to a thought of her mother. She needed to go home. Somehow, she needed to get home.