Cherise was 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.
Except for now.
“This map leads to answers.” Thomas looked helpless, cradled in Mrs. Hollander’s stout arms as she helped him finish using the toilet. Yet his tone had steel in it. “Don’t you want to meet my birth family?” he asked. “This woman can tell me why I’m me.”
Mrs. Hollander rolled her eyes as she dumped him back into his wheelchair. “I understand how upset you must feel, but sorry. I’m not going to meet anyone at a mysterious location in the middle of the night.” She parked Thomas next to his hospital bed, and gave him his lap desk and computer. “If this woman really knows your birth mother, then she should have given you her contact information.”
“I told you,” Thomas said. “The map has a name on it. I’ll bet it’s a relative of mine.”
“Maybe Vy will drive you this weekend.” Mrs. Hollander sounded distracted, switching on his glass bedside lamp.
Thomas gave her a murderous glare.
Cherise didn’t understand why he was so upset. They had found a map of the White Mountains folded inside the dish towel, but surely Thomas didn’t expect their foster mother to rearrange her schedule tonight just to drive him into a dense forest. The hand-drawn route seemed to end in wilderness. Two words were scrawled there, but ARIOCK DOVANACK was an unfamiliar name. An internet search had yielded zero results.
“I know I’m in your care.” Thomas pushed his laptop shut, glaring at Mrs. Hollander. “You can’t stop reminding me, every chance you get, but I’m not entirely helpless, and you know it. I could quit managing your investment account.”
Cherise sucked in her breath. From what she understood, their group home needed a lot of income. Thomas’s investments were the reason why every kid had a phone and a college tuition fund.
But Thomas would never follow through on a threat like that. Mrs. Hollander seemed to know it, because she said, “I am not your employee. I am your foster mother.” She emphasized the parental word.
“Fine.” Now Thomas sounded desperate. “Then let me owe you a huge favor. If you drive me there tonight, I’ll do anything you want.”
It was almost like being granted a wish by a genie. Thomas could make a lot of amazing things happen. Cherise stared at him, wondering why he was so insistent about something so unreasonable. Didn’t he realize that Mrs. Hollander already gave him more leeway than any other kid in existence? He didn’t have to go to school. He could stay up all night if he wanted to, every night. He’d even persuaded Mrs. Hollander to let him wire his bedroom so that he could unlock or lock his door with the press of a button. Meanwhile, Cherise had to share her attic bedroom with an eight-year-old who wet her bed every so often.
“I’m sorry, Thomas,” Mrs. Hollander said. “Rules exist for a reason.” She turned to leave. “Dinner’s in an hour.”
“Wait!” Thomas sounded desperate. “I can get the guy in the chocolate shop to ask you on a date. You know I can. Put me within range of him, and you won’t be single anymore.”
Mrs. Hollander paused in the doorway. It seemed impossible that anyone could make her cry, but her eyes looked too wet. With her auburn hair cut short, and her matronly sweaters, she didn’t look like she was trying to attract men. It had never occurred to Cherise that their foster mother was unhappy. She never spoke about her long-ago divorce.
“Learn some boundaries,” she said.
“What do you think my life is?” Thomas pounded his fist weakly on the lap desk.
Cherise yearned to remind them that they were both good people, but neither would appreciate an interruption. Her throat grew hot and swollen with unspoken words.
Mrs. Hollander seemed to change her mind about leaving. “Privacy is important. It’s something you need to respect. If you were an adult, you would understand.”
Thomas’s gaze looked hot enough to ignite something. “Am I supposed to be passive and helpless until I die?”
Mrs. Hollander planted her fists on her hips. “You don’t want to feel frustrated? Then stop using your . . . ability, or whatever it is . . . to hurt people.”
“I had to do something about Alicia!” Thomas was apparently responding to an unspoken thought. “She threatened Cherise. With a knife. Someone had to intervene. You clearly weren’t going to.”
“All I know,” Mrs. Hollander said, “is that after you talked to Alicia, she tried to get run over by a truck. She was fine before. Now she’s in lifelong psychiatric care.” She gave Thomas a pitying look, as if he was a drowning kitten. “I’m not as ignorant as I was when I first welcomed you into my home. Alicia wasn’t the first person who tried to commit suicide after you talked to them. I dug up some facts about your previous homes.” She closed the bedroom door for privacy. “You don’t have a normal history. I read about arrests. And worse. A murder.” She sounded pained. “You’ve lived in some very, very turbulent homes.”
“I prevented as much as I could.” Thomas tried to say more, but Mrs. Hollander held up her hand, as if she didn’t want to hear it.
“I know you’re smart, Thomas, but don’t forget, I know your secret. I’ve seen how you learn.” She tapped her head. “You lean close to a scientist, and then it’s like you have a copy of their brain inside your own.”
“It’s not an effortless transfer,” Thomas said dryly. “It can take days for me to fully gain—”
She cut him off. “You absorb other people’s minds. And you grew up among criminals.” Her tone was sorrowful. “The children here have enough problems without you wrecking their home. I won’t lose them. They’re everything to me.”
Cherise had never heard Mrs. Hollander utter a threat before. It sent a chill up her arms.
“I’m not going to wreck your home.” Thomas looked abashed. “This is the only good place I’ve ever lived.”
Mrs. Hollander’s tone dripped with scorn. “You want me to believe you have good intentions?” She flung her hand towards his medicine briefcase, as if it was something filthy. “Then tell me the full story behind that medicine you’re so proud of.”
Thomas rested his hand protectively atop the briefcase, which poked out from his wheelchair pocket. Metallic drawings of phoenix birds gleamed on the lid, drawn by Cherise in silver and gold markers.
“I’m not a complete idiot,” Mrs. Hollander said. “There’s no way a major biopharmaceutical company would allow a child to experiment on himself. You inject yourself four times per day. That can’t be right. So I started a casual conversation with an employee about your medicine, and she mentioned that a prototype had been stolen from the lab.”
“I invented it.” Thomas sounded authoritative, despite the permanent hunch of his spine. “I know exactly how it works.”
Cherise felt certain that he was telling the truth. He never lied. Besides, anyone could see that he’d been gaining strength, week by week. He used to look exhausted all the time. Now he could sit up all day, working on his laptop, with hardly any breaks.
“What do you think will happen when Rasa Biotech finds out?” Mrs. Hollander said. “You brought a stolen medical prototype into my home for special needs kids.” She didn’t allow Thomas a chance to reply. “I could be imprisoned for child endangerment. I could lose everything.”
“That won’t happen.” Thomas sounded reassuring. “I need it to live. I’m not about to let it out of my sight. This—” he patted the briefcase—“is a three month supply. It will be gone by February.”
“Then what?” Mrs. Hollander asked. “Will you steal another batch?”
Cherise was certain that Thomas would do whatever was necessary to survive. Although he wasn’t allowed in the vault at Rasa Biotech, no one could easily stop him. All he had to do was sit near someone in order to absorb key codes and passwords. People tended to overlook his capacious memory, but Cherise thought it was even more spectacular than his telepathic power. He could flip through a book and then recite the entire thing, word for word. It was effortless for him to secretly absorb lab schedules, then avoid lab technicians by working around their schedules, going motionless if he sensed someone within his range. Walls did not impede his ability. It was still a huge risk, but Thomas had no choice. His internal organs would wither and die unless he took regular doses of NAI-12.
“It could kill you!” Mrs. Hollander said, exasperated. “They haven’t even tested it on animals yet.”
“Do you want me to wait fifty years for the FDA-approved version?” Thomas gripped the handle of the briefcase, as if she might steal it from him. “I’ll die before it even gets to clinical trials. I can’t wait another month. I need regular doses now.”
Mrs. Hollander looked skeptical.
Cherise wanted to yell at her that the medicine was vital, that Thomas was more than he seemed. He was a super-hero. Sure, he didn’t act like one, or look like one, but anyone who lived with him ought to know better. He might someday invent a cure for cancer. He just needed to live long enough, which meant he needed NAI-12.
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Hollander sighed.
Cherise couldn’t stand it anymore. She kicked over a stack of science journals.
That caught their attention. Thomas looked startled, and Mrs. Hollander looked shocked, as if she hadn’t noticed the room’s other occupant until now.
“He needs it to live.” Cherise forced the words past the ache in her throat. She couldn’t bear to look at Mrs. Hollander, so she focused on Thomas, who gave her a grateful nod.
“Oh, sweetie,” Mrs. Hollander said. “Well, I’ll admit that he is a bit stronger.” She sounded as if she begrudged the admission.
Thomas looked proud of that accomplishment.
“That’s the only reason why I haven’t reported you.” Mrs. Hollander gave Thomas a warning look. “I will take risks to protect you, Thomas, but there’s a limit. All right? I want you to know that.”
She quietly opened the door, and left, closing it behind her.
Thomas didn’t speak for a moment. He looked as if he wanted to burn a hole through the door, and kill their foster mother, and Cherise wondered why. Mrs. Hollander clearly meant well. She rescued orphaned children. Not like Cherise’s Ma.
“She wants me dead,” Thomas said with bitterness.
Really? Cherise silently wondered, picking her way across the cluttered floor.
No one else was allowed to make such a mess. Every shelf and surface of Thomas’s room overflowed with papers and binders and books, while a riot of posters covered the walls, interspersed with drawings. Thomas liked complexity. He could undoubtedly recall every lost bread crumb on the floor, and he seethed whenever anyone threatened to tidy up his room. Mrs. Hollander allowed him to have his way most of the time.
“She’s nice on the surface,” Thomas said. “But if you could hear thoughts, you would know what she thought of me just now.” He imitated her voice. “‘God help us if he lives to adulthood.’”
Cherise winced. Perhaps their foster mother would never understand Thomas.
“She loves you, though, and everyone else.” Thomas reached for his NAI-12 briefcase, fumbling the latches open. “Time for an injection.”
Hundreds of tiny vials lined the interior, full of pale green liquid. Cherise reached for the injection pen, to help him, but Thomas took the pen.
“I need to get used to doing it myself.”
So she watched as Thomas popped an empty vial out of the pen, and inserted a fresh one. Then he rolled up his own sleeve. He was definitely more dexterous.
“Mrs. Hollander only allows me to keep this medicine because she cares about you,” Thomas said. “People are more honest in the privacy of their minds.” He pressed the pen against his twig-like arm, and winced as the needle pierced his vein. “We are all clothed in mirrors. Most people take a look at others and see their own reflection. Criminals see everyone as a potential criminal. To someone who’s used to dealing with threats, like Mrs. Hollander . . .” He placed the injection pen back in its cradle. “Everyone is a potential danger, and scanning for threats.”
He closed the briefcase, trembling from the effort.
Once he’d caught his breath, he went on. “I actually look dangerous to Mrs. Hollander. She thinks I need more limits. As if I’m not limited enough!”
Cherise wished she dared to have a conversation with Mrs. Hollander. For a second, she considered going into the kitchen, but she couldn’t imagine trying to carry a serious conversation while her foster mother was distracted with cooking.
She rolled down Thomas’s sleeve. In a few years, maybe he would gain enough strength to stand up and walk.
“I’ll never walk.” Thomas leaned back against his headrest. “I would need a new body. Look at my legs.”
Cherise didn’t need to look. She’d seen his underdeveloped, skeletal limbs often enough. Without muscles, they grew uneven, the joints atrophied into permanent positions.
“NAI-12 can’t repair damage that’s done,” Thomas said. “All it does is prevent further deterioration.” He touched the briefcase with satisfaction. “If I could have taken this since infancy, I’d be able-bodied. At least future infants born with SMA will have that chance.”
Cherise smiled, sure that he must have given up on the blond woman and her map. They’d spend a typical evening in his room, with him working on NAI-12 while she relaxed on the beanbag chair, doing her homework and drawing in her sketchbook.
His cautious tone made her hesitate.
“There’s something I didn’t tell Vy or Mrs. Hollander,” he said. “That name, Ariock Dovanack . . . there is something familiar about it.” He seemed reluctant, but he went on. “A lot of books about psychic powers mention someone named Dovanack. Not Ariock, but Garrett Dovanack. He was supposedly a mind reader.”
Cherise touched his hand. Thomas had been searching for other mind readers all his life.
“I couldn’t verify his powers,” Thomas said, “since he died twenty years ago. I never imagined that he might be my relative!”
Cherise squeezed his hand. He might not be, she thought.
“That map leads to a Dovanack.” Thomas pointed. “It might be a living descendant. Maybe Ariock Dovanack is my biological father or something!” He seemed to beg with his gaze. “Cherise, will you drive me there?”
At first, she wondered if he was joking. She was sixteen, old enough to drive, but she had neither a car nor a driver’s license.
“You know I’d never ask unless it was a dire need.” Thomas watched her avidly. “I can teach you to drive. I’ll talk you through it.”
Cherise felt sure that he could pilot a jet, or play a piano concerto, even though he’d never been in a cockpit or touched piano keys. He absorbed talents. He surely knew how to drive the minivan. But even with his guidance, the mountain roads were icy and dark at night, and she’d never practiced. They might skid and crash. Or get arrested.
“The chances of us getting hurt are minimal,” Thomas said. “It’s an hour there and an hour back. I’ll have my cell phone. And I’ll take all the blame, I promise.”
Why is this so important to you? Cherise picked up the map. Was that woman your birth mother? Thomas said that the blond stranger knew his birth mother, but he’d been vague.
He always got vague about topics close to his heart. Sometimes Cherise wondered if he was aware of how lopsided their friendship was. He could read her life history like a book, and yet she knew almost nothing about his prior foster homes, or his beliefs, or what truly went on inside his mind.
Thomas looked ashamed. “I don’t mean to be secretive.”
Cherise put the map aside. Tell me why this is important, she thought. Tell me everything, or I won’t want to help.
“Okay.” He took a deep breath, as if preparing for a plunge. “It’s just . . .” He shook his head, starting again. “I wish our friendship wasn’t so lopsided. I know it is. I can’t explain 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 miserable. “Talking doesn’t convey enough. It’s slow and clumsy, and even if I talked at you in a stream-of-conscious way, you’d tune me out, because words are boring. They’re like boxy containers. Imagination is freeform. That’s one of the reasons I love your mind. You have the most vivid imagination.” He seemed to give up completely. “I want someone to peek at my imagination, and my life history. I don’t want to be the only one.”
She sat on his bed, wishing she could give him the intimacy he seemed to need.
“That woman,” he said, “is a mind reader.”
Cherise caught her breath. Was she the monster who left you to freeze to death? she wondered.
Thomas avoided her gaze. “I’m not sure. She might be. All I’m certain of is that she knows the identity of my birth mother. And she can read minds.”
Couldn’t you absorb her memories? Cherise wondered. From what Thomas had told her, he could absorb a person’s basic life story within a matter of minutes. He’d been within range of the woman long enough for that.
“Her mind was . . .” Thomas seemed to consider his words. “Not normal. Not like anyone else’s. She had billions of people peering through her eyes.” His own gaze seemed electric with excitement. “It was incredible, Cherise. They sounded like angels. Like a chorus of angels. They share every thought, all echoing to each other, bouncing ideas off each other faster than lightning. I could only hear them from afar, as an outsider, but my God, it was beautiful. It was like seeing an infinite horizon for the first time.”
He looked embarrassed by how deeply the experience had affected him. Cherise squeezed his hand. Billions of others? She figured he might be exaggerating. Where are they?
“Other worlds.” He sounded serious. “They’re all mind readers. I must be one of them.” He gestured at the map on his nightstand. “They want me to go to this place, to Ariock Dovanack. I don’t know how long they’ll wait.”
Everything about the map raised red flags in Cherise’s mind. The route wound past Liberty Hill, where Thomas had been rescued as an infant. That was where his name came from. After he’d lain anonymous and unclaimed for two years, the staff at the hospital nursery gave him a name: Thomas, for the surgeon who had saved him from freezing to death, and Hill, for the location of his rescue on Liberty Hill.
If that woman knows who abandoned you, Cherise thought, then she should just tell you. Why lure you into the woods?
“I don’t think it’s a lure.” Thomas sounded frustrated. “I think they’re just unused to explaining things. They probably show things rather than explain them.”
Cherise tried to imagine billions of mind readers networked together. It sounded like the internet, but more intimate.
“They have technology like you wouldn’t believe,” Thomas said. “I could improve NAI-12 by leaps and bounds!”
Now his excitement made sense. Thomas would do anything to improve his medicine.
Cherise picked up the map again, studying the route. Maybe this Ariock person was another mind reader. Maybe Thomas would find his birth family in the woods, but they must be a cruel family, to have left him to die.
Why do you want a new family? She asked it in her mind, because a lump of sadness hurt her throat. She was going to lose him. Part of her had always dreaded the day when Thomas would leave the Hollander Home. He’d probably become world-famous and stop talking to the likes of her.
“I want you in my life forever.” Thomas clasped her hand. “I swear it. This isn’t an attempt to get adopted.” He barked a laugh. “Believe me, I’m not going to give you up, even if they offer me all the technology in the universe. Even if they offer me immortality.” He shook his head. “I just want them to answer some questions I have. That’s it. Then I’ll decide whether or not to ever see them again.”
Cherise had sought answers once. She’d visited Ma in the state penitentiary, and her Ma, wearing an orange jumpsuit, had screamed obscenities at her. That was the only answer she would ever get. She figured that the only way to move on with her life was to forget the questions.
“I can’t forget anything.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I get your concern, but I promise, I won’t go there expecting a loving family reunion. I may not even talk to them. I just want to get within range to soak up some memories, and that will be all.”
It seems dangerous, Cherise thought. Why does it have to be tonight?
Thomas spread his arms. “That woman could sneak in here and kidnap me, if she wanted to. Who could stop her? She’s a mind reader. She doesn’t need to lure me anywhere, if she has bad intentions.”
Cherise had to concede that point. Thomas’s range was like antennae, or cat whiskers, letting him know who was in the vicinity, and what they were looking at. He could be sneakier than an able-bodied kid. The blond woman must be the same way.
“Anyway, I would have sensed if she was lying or being deceptive.” He tapped his chest. “Living lie detector.”
Cherise stuffed the map into her pocket, torn by indecision. If she stole the van keys and drove Thomas to the mysterious location up north, Mrs. Hollander might never forgive her.
“That map leads someplace special.” Thomas looked as if not knowing would kill him. “I’m sure of it. You know what else was amazing? Those other mind readers didn’t see me as disabled. Not a single one of them. When they looked at me . . .” He closed his eyes, as if savoring the memory. “They saw me as an adult, as an equal. I could be one of them.”
Cherise reached into her pocket, where the origami lion nestled. It felt like cloth after two and a half years, but it reminded her that someone cared. Thomas would always watch out for her. He had saved her so many times. Maybe now, she could do something for him.
She just hoped it wasn’t a terrible mistake.