Cherise felt as silent and inconsequential as the stacks of books and science journals all over Thomas’s bedroom. That was how she liked things. Let the world pass her by. Let people forget that she existed.
She held the map open and stared at the circled area.
The portion of Liberty Hill Road where Thomas had been found was near the circle, but not inside it. As far as Cherise could see, the indicated region was devoid of civilization. No landmarks, no roads. It was just woods.
“That map leads to answers.” Thomas looked helpless, cradled in Mrs. Hollander’s stout arms as she lifted him out of his wheelchair and tucked him into bed. “Don’t you want to find out what sort of people I come from?” His tone gained an edge. “Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care.” Mrs. Hollander arranged the call button next to Thomas’s weak hand, so that he could alert someone if he needed medical help. “But we can go exploring this weekend. I’m not driving into the middle of the woods without a good reason. I’m sorry.”
She gave him a gentle kiss on his forehead.
Thomas gave her a murderous glare.
“You know,” he said as Mrs. Hollander walked away, “I could quit managing your home’s investment portfolio. How would you like that?”
Mrs. Hollander stopped, and Cherise held her breath. She didn’t understand why Thomas was threatening their kindhearted foster mother.
Cherise had never seen Thomas act desperate, until now. It was uncharacteristic of him. He should have been able to pluck that stranger’s name and home address out of her mind. Usually, he only needed a few seconds to soak up a person’s entire life history.
“You’ve done a lot for us, Thomas.” Mrs. Hollander turned, giving him a sad look. “I appreciate that you’ve given every one of your foster siblings the means to buy a phone and a laptop. But we got along before you. We can get along if we lose your financial advice.”
Cherise stared at Thomas. He would never follow through on a threat like that. Would he?
“Then let me owe you a huge favor,” Thomas said. “If you drive me there tonight, I’ll do anything you want. Anything at all. I know a lot of secrets, and I can make a lot of good things happen for you.”
Cherise blinked in astonishment. Was Thomas going to reveal his mind reading power to their foster mother?
He had come close to doing so, multiple times. Mrs. Hollander knew enough to be wary around him. She spent less time around him than the other kids, leaving her daughter, Vy, to act as his primary caretaker.
Thomas was the only kid in the Hollander Home who had his own room. Cherise had to share her attic bedroom with two other girls. Even Vy shared a room, although her roommate was due to graduate this year and would likely move out.
Not only did Thomas get extra privacy and care; he got to stay up all night, if he wanted to. He didn’t need to do homework or go to school. He got more leeway than any kid in existence. Most of that was due to the way he manipulated people. He had socially engineered their home, to the point where nobody bullied him or bothered him. Not unless he invited them to do so.
“I can get the owner of the fudge shop to ask you on a date,” Thomas said, his tone full of hints. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, and he’s into you. Just bring me with you on a shopping trip there, and I promise, you won’t be single anymore.”
Mrs. Hollander gave him a frown. With her matronly sweaters, she didn’t look like someone who was trying to attract men. She hardly ever spoke about her long-ago divorce.
“It would be nice if you respected people’s boundaries,” she said.
“Boundaries?” Thomas pounded his weak fist on the bed spread. “What do you think my life is?”
“If you really want to offer me a tempting favor,” Mrs. Hollander said, “then how about if you offer to return that medical prototype you stole from Rasa Biotech?” She gave him a pitying look. “Yes, that’s right, I know about it.”
Cherise glanced at the briefcase which poked out of the wheelchair’s pocket. She had drawn fanciful phoenix birds on the lid, in metallic ink, to symbolize regeneration and life. The drawings made the case look customized, and less like stolen property.
“I invented it.” Thomas glared defensively. “It’s my property.”
“Legally? It’s not.” Mrs. Hollander folded her arms. “You take four injections per day, and technically, I don’t even know what it is. What I do know,” she said, overriding Thomas’s explanation, “is that children are not allowed to perform scientific experiments on themselves.”
“I need that medicine to survive,” Thomas said. “That’s the only way I’ll live to adulthood.”
Cherise felt certain that he was telling the truth. Anyone could see that Thomas had been gaining strength, week by week, ever since he’d begun to take the prototype treatment. He used to look exhausted all the time. Now he could sit at his laptop throughout a full work day, with hardly any breaks.
“They haven’t even tested it on animals yet!” Mrs. Hollander said.
Cherise wanted to yell at her. Thomas didn’t look or act like a superhero, but that was exactly what he was. His medicine worked. If anyone was smart enough to cure cancer or solve global problems, it was him.
He just needed to live long enough.
Which meant he needed NAI-12.
“Oh, you want me to wait ten years for the clinical trials to get started?” Thomas said with bitter sarcasm. “I need regular doses, and I can’t wait even a month. My medicine is vital. I’m doing what I have to, to survive!”
Mrs. Hollander gave him a look of frustrated sympathy. “That is why I’ve refrained from saying anything about it.”
That was kind of her.
“But,” Mrs. Hollander went on, “it would be nice if you kept the repercussions in mind. I allowed you to bring a stolen medical prototype into my home for special needs kids. I could be imprisoned for child endangerment. I could lose—” she gestured around. “—Everything.”
Cherise yearned to remind them that they were both good people, but neither would appreciate an interruption. Her throat felt swollen with unspoken words.
“I won’t let that happen.” Thomas sounded reassuring.
“You’re thirteen years old,” Mrs. Hollander reminded him in a world-weary tone. “You’re good at intuiting what people want, but you can’t control everybody.” She gestured at the medical briefcase. “I assume that supply will run out. What then? Are you going to steal another batch, and pray you don’t get caught?”
That was most likely exactly what Thomas would do.
Mrs. Hollander shook her head in consternation. “How did you manage to steal a secret prototype, anyway? Don’t they keep those things locked up in vaults?”
“I’m good at figuring out pass codes,” Thomas said.
That was true, but not the whole truth, Cherise knew.
During a visit to the Rasa lab in Boston, Thomas had brought Cherise with him, ostensibly to keep him company, as a guest. They had toured the lab together, along with Vy. Thomas had greeted technicians and scientists, and while doing so, he had absorbed their key passwords and personal schedules.
Cherise privately thought that Thomas’s memory was even more spectacular than his telepathic power. He could flip through a textbook and then recite the entire thing, word for word. Learning was effortless for him. He had impressed an academic review board at Harvard enough to earn an “equivalency” STEM generalist degree.
Thomas had engineered an excuse to revisit a specific lab along with Cherise. From there, they had sneaked into the vault, timing the infiltration around the schedule of technicians. They had gone motionless whenever Thomas sensed someone within his range. Walls did not impede his ability.
The hardest part for Thomas, by far, was physically lifting the case. He had enlisted Cherise’s help for that.
Afterwards, Thomas had asked Vy to stop at a coffee shop. While Vy and Cherise enjoyed mocha lattes and checked their social media, Thomas had used the shop’s wifi network to hack into the Rasa Biotech security system. He had introduced a code worm which deleted camera footage, erasing evidence that might get him and Cherise convicted.
Perhaps that heist had been a huge risk.
Perhaps someone suspected Thomas. But so what? Cherise didn’t care. Thomas needed regular doses of NAI-12, or else his internal organs would wither and die.
“Have a good night, Thomas. And Cherise.” Mrs. Hollander stepped out of the room.
“I can do you any favor!” Thomas pleaded.
But it was no use. Mrs. Hollander closed the door, and soon her footsteps were moving away, down the creaky hall.
Thomas looked as if he wanted to burn a hole through the door.
Cherise went to him. What’s wrong? she asked inside her mind, aware that she was close enough for Thomas to hear her thoughts. Why are you in such a hurry to get out there? She indicated the map, which was folded in her hand.
“I need answers,” he said.
Cherise wondered what he expected to find. She and Thomas had already done an internet search of the circled region. Zero results. The satellite view indicated that there might be a fire road, or a wooded lane, winding off the main road, but there were too many trees to tell for certain.
And according to search engines? There was nothing noteworthy in the mountain wilderness.
“Cherise.” Thomas turned his gaze towards her. “Would you drive me there?”
She almost thought he was joking.
Except that his eyes had a calculating look.
I don’t have a driver’s license yet, Cherise silently pointed out.
She was the right age to gain her first license, and she was preparing to take the exam. She hoped to be able to legally drive after the holidays were over. But she had yet to gain that coveted license.
“I can talk you through it.” Thomas watched her avidly.
Cherise suspected that Thomas was, indeed, an expert driver, even though he had never sat behind the wheel of a vehicle. He could draw as well as Cherise, even though he lacked the strength to hold a pen for very long.
Thomas inhaled talents as easily as breathing. All he needed to do, in order to absorb a skill, was sit near an expert for a few seconds. He’d told Cherise that he could pilot a fighter jet, and play a piano concerto, and speak ten languages fluently. She believed him.
But they didn’t have a car.
“We’ll borrow the minivan,” Thomas said. “I know where the spare key is.”
Of course he did.
Cherise hesitated. She wanted to aid Thomas, but this seemed dangerous. The roads were icy at night, especially in the mountains. There were potholes. Cellular coverage was unreliable out there. And wasn’t it supposed to snow?
They might skid and crash. Then they’d be in major trouble.
“Please?” Thomas gave her a pleading look. “It’s an hour there and an hour back. The risks are minimal, except for Mrs. Hollander getting angry. And I promise, I’ll take all the blame. This is totally on me.”
Cherise reached into her pocket to feel her talisman; the reminder that Thomas cared about her. The origami lion felt as soft as cloth after more than a year and a half. She carried it with her everywhere.
Why is this so important to you? she silently wondered. Was that stranger in the driveway your birth mother?
Thomas looked away. “I’m not sure. She might be.”
That was vague.
Cherise wondered if Thomas ever felt bothered by their lopsided friendship. He could read her like a book, whereas she had to make guesses.
Like, had Thomas ever confided in anybody else, other than Cherise?
Why did he refuse to talk about his previous experiences in foster care?
The few tidbits which Cherise had overheard about his past—from Mrs. Hollander and Vy—were grim. Thomas had been bounced from one group home to another, between five states. It sounded as if no other foster parents could tolerate him. And Thomas used to have a knack for landing in homes that suddenly erupted with major dysfunction.
While Thomas lived in certain homes, there were arrests. A suicide. And a murder.
One of his former foster parents had actually murdered the other.
Thomas never talked about those experiences. He didn’t seem to want anyone to know, although he had only been six years old at the time of the murder. Whenever Cherise asked about his prior homes, he changed the subject, or he said something dismissive, like he’d rather pretend that he had always lived in the Hollander Home.
Cherise could understand and sympathize with that, at least. They both agreed that Mrs. Hollander was the best foster mother anyone could hope for.
“I don’t mean to be secretive.” Thomas looked ashamed. “It’s just …” He took a deep breath, as if preparing for a plunge. “Yes, I wish our friendship wasn’t lopsided. I can’t even express how many times I’ve wished you could read my mind. I want you to absorb my memories, and know my thought patterns, the way I know yours.”
He looked so miserable, Cherise held his hand. She hadn’t known that he yearned for that.
“I really do,” Thomas said. “Talking is slow and clumsy. If I talked at you in a stream-of-conscious way, you’d tune me out, because words are boring. They’re boxy containers. Imagination is freeform. That’s one of the reasons I love your mind. You have the most vivid imagination.”
“I’m sick of being the only one.” Thomas seemed to melt against his bed, defeated. “That’s why I need to go out there.” He eye-gestured at the map. “There are other mind readers. She showed me. Cherise, that woman is a mind reader.”
Cherise caught her breath. This was a huge revelation. It must be even huger for Thomas.
But why was he so vague? Didn’t the strange other mind reader have a name?
“She had a sort of name.” Thomas looked uncomfortable. “Her people think of her as the Swift Killer.”
That sounded potentially ominous. Why do they call her that? Cherise wondered. And who are they?
“I don’t know.” Thomas sounded embarrassed to admit that he had failed to learn something. “The answers are out there. I just…” He stared at the ceiling, clearly frustrated. “How am I supposed to sleep, knowing that there’s something I need to learn, and it’s only an hour’s drive away? They might have a secret Men-in-Black agency in the woods. Or an alien portal. There’s something out there, and I need to see it.”
Unanswered questions must be incredibly frustrating for him. Cherise wondered if he had ever felt ignorant in any meaningful way.
She had sought answers once.
She had visited her Ma in the state penitentiary. And Ma, wearing an orange jumpsuit, had screamed obscenities at her.
That was the only answer she would ever get.
Cherise figured that the only way to move on with her life was to let go of the questions. Did Thomas truly want to meet the monster who had abandoned him at birth? Why? Wasn’t he satisfied with the family he currently had?
Would he prefer to be around a bunch of mind readers, even if one of them had left him in the woods to die?
A lump of sadness formed in Cherise’s throat. Part of her had always dreaded that Thomas would leave the Hollander Home prematurely. He would likely become world-famous within another year or two. Then he’d stop talking to the likes of her.
“No, I don’t want a new family.” Thomas squeezed her hand with his weak grip. “I swear. This isn’t about me trying to find my birth family.” He barked a laugh. “Believe me, they could offer me all the money and hugs in the world, and I’d turn them down. I would never want to lose you.”
Thomas looked sincere.
He never lied.
Cherise felt like she was glowing with the warmth of his sincerity. She was tattered, like that paper lion, but she was still holding herself together. She held onto him.
“I just want to find out if they have medicine that can cure my disease,” Thomas said.
Cherise peered at him, questioning.
“They’re aliens.” Thomas’s gaze became electrified with excitement. “That woman had billions of people peering through her eyes! It was incredible. They sounded like angels. Like a chorus of angels.”
Cherise wondered if he had somehow misinterpreted the experience.
“No mistake,” Thomas said. “There are countless mind readers, and they live on other worlds, bouncing ideas off each other faster than lightning. I could only hear them from afar, as an outsider. But my god, Cherise. It was beautiful. It was like seeing an infinite horizon for the first time!”
He looked embarrassed by how deeply the encounter had affected him.
“And,” he said, “they have technology far more advanced than anything on Earth.”
Ah. Now his fervor made sense. Thomas would go to any lengths to improve his medicine. If he saw a chance to learn neuroscience from super-advanced aliens, he would do anything to grab it.
“You know what else was amazing?” Thomas closed his eyes, as if savoring the memory. “Those other mind readers didn’t see me as disabled. They saw me as an adult, and as a potential equal. I could be one of them. Respected, as one of them.”
Cherise looked for his clothes. She guessed he would want to be dressed for tonight’s outing.
For better or for worse, they were going to find the answers that Thomas sought.