The minivan rattled over potholes, the asphalt torn into chunks by gnarled tree roots. Snowflakes appeared and vanished as they passed through the headlights. Beyond that, all Vy could see was dark forest.
She glanced at the map. They were on the part where the route crooked into unmarked wilderness. No road was pictured, although it existed in reality. “I don’t like this,” she said.
“Well, I find it rather fascinating,” Thomas said from the rear compartment. “I remember every detail of every map I’ve ever seen of this region. This road isn’t shown on any of them.” He sounded happy, even excited. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
Vy supposed he could afford to be happy. His trusty caretaker was behind the wheel, his best friend sat in the passenger seat, and he was safely strapped in. No one would blame him if the van got stuck in snow and needed a tow-truck. No. They’d blame the adult in charge.
“I’ll take all the blame for anything that might happen,” Thomas said soothingly. “I said I would.”
“Can you please not read my—”
“Left turn here,” he broke in.
The lane was so overgrown, she nearly missed it. Trees formed a dense tunnel. They passed wrought iron gates, rusted askew, beneath an arc that spelled the name DOVANACK. Fresh snow capped each black letter.
“So this is where he lived.” Thomas looked awestruck, although there was nothing to see outside. Just snow-shrouded forest. Frozen branches scraped the roof, like feeble prisoners clawing at the van, trying to hold them back.
“Maybe we should turn around,” Vy said. “This could be private property.”
“No way,” Thomas said. “We’re almost at the end of the map. If the Dovanack family lived a few miles from where I was abandoned, that can’t be a coincidence. Garrett Dovanack made a fortune as a gambler. That implies a mind reading power.”
“You think you’re part of a family of mind readers?” Vy had helped raise enough orphans to know how many daydreamed about belonging to a wealthy family. Thomas seemed needier than most. Everyone in the state of New Hampshire had probably heard him beg his unknown birth parents to contact him, every time he got interviewed.
“I think I’m a Dovanack descendent,” Thomas said. “Why else would I be sent here?”
His uncertainty made him sound like a normal kid. Vy glanced back at him. “Didn’t you learn anything solid from that woman who gave you the map?”
“Not much salient information.” Thomas sounded embarrassed.
“What was her name?”
Thomas hesitated. “Um, she had a title. No real name, that I could tell. I suspect that mind readers don’t need names.” He spoke faster, as if to change the subject. “Garrett Dovanack was probably a mind reader, with a made-up name. His initials spelled GOD. Garrett Olmstead Dovanack. That has to make you wonder if he named himself.”
Vy didn’t feel like laughing. As they rounded a bend, an immense building loomed ahead. Steep roofs peaked like the jagged tops of pine trees. Hundreds of black windows gaped, toothy with icicles, set in cliff-like granite walls.
The mansion was entirely dark and still. Vy had expected to see the blond woman, perhaps backed up by secret soldiers, super-scientists, or Paparazzi camera crews. She’d been ready to drive away at the first sign of trouble. But the snow was pristine, undisturbed by any vehicles or people.
“It looks derelict.” She followed the circular driveway around a frozen fountain.
“I’ll bet Ariock Dovanack lives here,” Thomas said.
Vy parked next to a pair of snarling lion statues, which flanked snow-blanketed steps that led up to ornate double doors. “Even if nobody lives here,” she said, “we’re trespassing on private property. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Oh, come on!” Thomas sounded like a kid pleading to stay up past his bedtime. “We have to at least knock on the door.”
That was the last thing Vy wanted to do. “I’m sorry,” she said, as gently as she could. “You asked me to drive you to the end of the map, and here we are. Mission accomplished. We’re going home.” She shifted the van into drive.
Cherise gazed at the entrance to the mansion, and held up something like a paper snowflake. It looked like a delicate imitation of the lion statues. She moved the paper lion, and Vy noticed a ramp that zigzagged past overgrown hedges. The mansion was handicapped-accessible.
Cherise gave Vy a silent, desperate look.
“All right. Fine.” Vy parked, hating herself for caving in. “Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go up there and knock, and wait one minute. That’s it. Then we’re leaving.”
Cherise smiled like a mountain climber at the peak of a summit.
“That’s acceptable,” Thomas said.
Reluctant, Vy killed the engine. Frost began to appear on the windshield. Only her own breathing broke the dead silence. As she walked to the rear of the van, her boots ground on fresh snow.
Her scarf and parka weren’t enough to ward off the biting cold. She shivered as she pushed the wheelchair up the ramp.
She saw no doorbell, but the double doors had massive knockers, each one gripped by a lion’s head and veined with frost.
“Charming,” Vy said through chattering teeth. She reached for one knocker with her gloved hand.
The door swung inward just as Vy touched it. She jerked back, steeling herself for an angry hermit, or something worse, like an undead butler.
A woman with shoulder-length grey hair and a weathered face peered out. She wore a black cable-knit sweater.
“Uh, hi,” Vy said uncertainly. While she struggled to think of a good excuse for showing up at a private mansion uninvited, the older woman scrutinized each of them in turn. She didn’t look like the blond woman from earlier. Her swept-back hair had probably been dark at one time, and she was heavyset, with green eyes.
Wordless, she began to shut the door.
“Ariock needs my help,” Thomas said.
The older woman looked shocked, as if Thomas had hit her with a sledgehammer. She tottered back a step.
“Let us in.” Thomas didn’t wait for permission. He powered his wheelchair inside as if he owned the place.
He had a knack for saying exactly what he needed to get the reaction he wanted. Vy hurried after him, saying, “I’m so sorry. We don’t mean to barge in. We’ll leave right away.”
As she entered the mansion, she couldn’t help but notice a cavernous foyer, with bronze wall sconces reflecting each other’s meager light. A bank of monitors glowed phosphorescent green along one wall, displaying night-vision views of the driveway. There was her van, and its tire tracks in the snow.
Maybe security cameras had alerted the woman to their arrival. Or maybe . . . Vy decided to ask her outright. “Are you a mind reader?”
“Who the hell are you?” The woman straightened, as if regaining her composure. She stared at each of them. “How did you find this place? How do you know about Ariock?”
She didn’t seem to be telepathic. Vy glanced at Thomas to see his reaction. He scrutinized the woman with an intense look, but surely he would say something, if she was abnormal in any way. Now that Vy considered it, an adult with hidden powers seemed dangerous. At least Thomas didn’t hide what he could do. He didn’t announce it to the world, but he didn’t go to great lengths to deceive people, either.
“I’m Vy.” She offered what she hoped was a friendly smile. “Vy Hollander. This is Cherise.” She gestured to where Cherise was closing the enormous door. “And this . . .”
Thomas maneuvered his wheelchair to stay within range of the woman, who was backing away from him. He gawked like a kid enchanted by the world’s biggest candy store, following her every move. She couldn’t get away. He anticipated every move she made.
“Thomas!” Vy said sharply. “I’m sorry, he’s not usually this rude.” She hurried to grab his wheelchair. “We’re leaving. I’m so sorry.”
Thomas seemed to recover his dignity. He was normally casual about absorbing other people’s life experiences. “Lynn.” He addressed the older woman. “I can help Ariock. I promise.”
Lynn studied Thomas. “How do you know my name? How the hell can you possibly know anything about my son?”
“I’m a mind reader.” Thomas sounded like it was no big deal, although he almost never admitted his power. Never in public. Never to strangers. Those were his rules. Vy released his wheelchair and stared. It had taken him several weeks after moving into the Hollander Home before he’d confessed his power to her.
Lynn seemed unaware that he’d just revealed a dearly held secret. “Tell me the truth,” she demanded.
“We’ll leave,” Vy said, now certain that this Lynn person was not a telepath. She had probably never encountered anyone like Thomas. The map must be a practical joke. This was a private residence, nothing more.
Thomas wheeled towards a dim corridor. “I know everything important about your life, Lynn,” he said airily. “Don’t be alarmed. I won’t reveal your secrets. Those are yours to keep, and yours to tell. But your son is deeply depressed and needs help. You’re worried that he’ll kill himself. I can save him.”
“You can’t know all that!” Lynn’s voice was shrill. She rushed after Thomas as if he might wreck her life.
Exasperated, Vy hurried to catch up. Cherise jogged by her side, with no urging necessary. Neither of them wanted to lose sight of Thomas. They passed beneath dark chandeliers festooned with cobwebs, kicking up dust from the patterned carpet. Wall sconces cast a dull glow on oil paintings.
“I am so sorry.” Vy seized the handles of the wheelchair, slowing it to a stop. “Thomas gets away with a lot at home,” she told Lynn. “I didn’t think he would—”
“Bear with me,” Thomas broke in. “I followed a map here because I assumed it would lead to my birth family. It’s possible that Ariock and I are related.”
Lynn put her hands on her hips, looking scornful.
“Obviously,” Thomas went on, “I’m not your son. Or Ariock’s son.”
Lynn snorted with obvious derision.
“But I could be a cousin,” Thomas said hopefully. “Look at the color of my eyes.” He angled his face, widening his eyes so they could see. “It’s the Dovanack eye color.”
Lynn studied him from a distance. After a moment, she said in a flat tone, “You don’t look anything like anyone in my family.”
“I have the same color eyes as Ariock,” Thomas insisted.
“I don’t see it,” Lynn said.
“Okay, my eyes are lighter,” Thomas said in a conceding tone. “But it’s the same basic hue.”
“Nope.” Lynn swept a gesture towards several oil portraits on the wall. “You don’t look like a Dovanack.”
The subject of each painting had dark hair and bold facial features, with strong noses and chins. Vy inwardly agreed that they looked nothing like Thomas.
“That doesn’t rule out a genetic relationship,” Thomas said. “I was abandoned in the woods near here. Your family has a history of mind reading, and I can read minds. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence.”
“You’ve obviously read about old Garrett.” Lynn’s tone was frosty. “The house staff liked to exaggerate. He wasn’t psychic. He was normal. Our family is completely normal.”
“Well, maybe he hid it from you,” Thomas said. “He could have—”
“I knew him well.” Lynn clenched her fists. “Explain why you’re here. Or you’re leaving. Now.”
Thomas gave her a merciless stare. Vy had seen him wrench respect from Nobel Prize winning scientists, but most people found his arrogance offensive. That was undoubtedly why he’d been shuffled through so many group homes.
“We’re leaving.” She offered Lynn an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know what Ariock looks like.” Thomas spoke fast, leaning around to face Lynn. “He’s afraid to leave this house, and you’re afraid to let him. Because of how he looks.”
Lynn’s voice trembled. “How do you know that?”
“I can read minds,” Thomas said with patience. “Look, I promise that we won’t threaten Ariock in any way. I keep secrets on a daily basis. I’m used to it. And Vy never judges anyone, no matter what they look like.” He gestured. “Cherise hardly ever talks. None of us is going to speak a word about this place, or your family, I promise. We’ll keep Ariock a secret.”
Vy thought that Lynn’s son, Ariock, sounded like a prisoner. Thomas seemed to hear her thoughts, because he made a mouth-zipping gesture at her.
“You had better leave.” The threat in Lynn’s voice sounded huge. “Now.”
That was enough for Vy. She toggled off the wheelchair brake, wishing she didn’t need to fight Thomas on this. Overpowering such a weak kid made her feel like an ogre. At least Cherise didn’t protest as Vy forced the wheelchair down the hallway, towards the front foyer.
Thomas leaned on the armrest, twisted so he could face Lynn. “We’re not the only ones who know about Ariock.” He acted as if they were having a casual chat. “Someone gave me a map with his name written on it.”
“What?” Lynn sounded wounded. “Who?”
“Someone with a massive audience,” Thomas said. “Look, people are going to find out about him. You know it. His privacy can’t last forever.”
Silence from Lynn. It unnerved Vy, so she hesitated, and peered back.
It was hard to see in the dim light, but Lynn’s eyes glistened. Something about the tightness of her face reminded Vy of chronically suffering patients.
“Please let me talk to him,” Thomas said. “Please. I won’t say anything to hurt him, I swear. You need me. Just let me meet him. You’ll be glad for it, I promise.”
Vy had only heard Thomas plead like that once before, when he’d begged her not to tell anyone that he’d stolen a prototype from the vault at Rasa Biotech. “I’ll die if you tell anyone,” he had said. And he’d meant it.
Now Lynn looked as if she might die from indecision. Thomas watched her avidly, like a kid who had just knocked over a trail of dominoes and was watching the results. Even Cherise watched with anticipation.
Maybe they wanted to rescue Ariock, but rescuing a child was never simple. Vy had seen her mother lose sleep because of death threats from criminally negligent parents or their gangster relatives. There were always threats. And sometimes the court system forced her mother to send a needy child away, back into a toxic household.
Vy had no idea if Lynn was a good mother or not. This wasn’t a battle she wanted to leap into. She gave Lynn an apologetic smile, and said, “We’ll leave. I thought the person who gave us that map had already contacted you. Apparently not. This was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
She pushed the wheelchair away, steeling herself for an explosive argument from Thomas. He was the most persistent person she’d ever met. He would try bribes, threats, or anything.
“Wait.” The quiet plea came from Lynn, not Thomas.
Vy hesitated. She wanted to leave this chilly mansion, with its musty smell. Clocks ticked in distant rooms. They seemed to mimic each other.
“If someone gave you a map, then I don’t have any choice.” Lynn sagged, staring at them from across the length of hallway. “Other people know where we live. They know Ariock exists.”
“Precisely,” Thomas said.
“You’re really a mind reader?” Lynn studied his fragile body.
“Yup.” Thomas maneuvered his wheelchair around to face her. “I’m the best psychologist you’ll ever meet.”
“Maybe you can help,” Lynn said, although she looked suspicious. “What am I thinking?”
Thomas didn’t hesitate. “On the surface, you decided to pick a random number, because you’ve seen too many TV shows about psychics. Seventy-one. Beneath that, your emotions are knotted up, and you’re worried that I’m a sleazy scam artist bent on destroying what family you have left. Two minutes ago, you inwardly considered paying us a million dollars if we help ease Ariock into a public lifestyle, in such a way that he doesn’t kill himself. You’re terrified that we’re going to wreck his life.”
Lynn went pale and backed away.
Vy remembered her own shock the first few times Thomas had spoken her exact thoughts. The mind was more hallowed than any sanctuary, more invincible than any fortress. No one else—not a beloved friend, not a torturer—could access one’s inner thoughts. Yet Thomas plucked out her murkiest fears and most cherished beliefs. His ability seemed like something wrong, like a spider skittering over fine china.
“All right.” Lynn seemed to decide that she was more impressed than afraid. “Wait here.” She strode away with brisk strides. “Let me warn him. He hasn’t seen anyone else in ten years.”
Vy stared at her retreating back. Ten years? That was a long time to be alone.
Thomas rolled next to her. “I know you think I’m a bully,” he said. “But I only pressured her because this is important. I need to meet Ariock Dovanack.”
She matched his brusque tone. “Why?”
“I was sent here for a reason,” Thomas said. “I don’t know what that reason is yet, so I need to find out if Ariock is like me. Lynn doesn’t think he can read minds, or do anything special, but I won’t know for sure until I meet him.” He gestured. “Thirteen feet is my limit.”
“Great.” Vy paced slowly down the corridor, past tapestries and Romanesque bronze statues on pedestals. “So what was all that talk about saving him from depression? Just your way of getting to meet him?”
“It was a genuine offer.” Thomas sounded hurt. “I’m sure I can help him. I’ve absorbed skills from dozens of psychologists and social workers.” He gave her a critical look. “Uh, you need some preparation, though. You’ll need to resist the urge to stare at him.”
The more he told Vy, the more preparation she wanted. His words blended together until all she heard was that Ariock had a growth disorder, some unique form of gigantism that couldn’t be cured. Apparently, Ariock was twenty-two years old—her age—and healthy, without any of the problems associated with gigantism, but instead of living a normal life, he stayed away from people who might stare. He never set foot outside the house. No college, no jobs, no dates. He never even used the internet.
“That’s terrible,” Vy cut in. “He’s a prisoner in his own home.”
“His genetic disorder is another coincidence between us.” Thomas sounded immersed in his own musings. “We both have extreme unique variants of rare genetic mutations.” He looked as if he was trying to solve a difficult equation. “We must have something in common. If he’s not related to me, then it’s something else.”
Vy studied his determined face. She and her mother had taken care of Thomas for years, dressing him, serving him meals. “Do you really want them for a family?” She gestured at the dusty marble floor, the forlorn statues. “I don’t see the appeal. Lynn would probably make you a prisoner, like Ariock.”
Thomas gave a head shake, as if she was hopelessly wrong. “First of all, I’m not trying to get adopted. Second of all, Ariock is holding himself prisoner. His mom has been urging him to get outside for the past decade.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Vy told Thomas gently. “If Ariock is my age, then he missed high school, and maybe some middle school. His mother allowed that. She’s a negligent parent. That makes her pretty much a criminal.”
“She hired private tutors, at first,” Thomas said. “She did her best. But the tutors kept staring, posting photos of him on social media, and . . .” He seemed to give up. “You’ll understand why she doesn’t force him to go outside, when you see him.”
They entered a grand hall with a sweeping staircase. Cherise stopped ahead, peering through a doorway as if transfixed. Vy joined her, expecting to see something that Cherise might want to sketch, such as an antique grandfather clock, or a graceful statue.
The darkened room only contained a dining table of rough-hewn pinewood, and doll-sized chairs along the walls.
Then Vy realized that those chairs were normal-sized. It was the table that was enormous.
A single gigantic rough-hewn chair matched it. Vy, who was as tall as most men, would need a step-stool to climb up onto its seat.
She gazed into the darkness of the hall, feeling a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. If that table implied Ariock’s size, then he would have to duck through doorways and beneath chandeliers. He might be taller than anyone in history.
She wasn’t sure it was safe to meet a giant like that, especially if he needed a mental health professional. She ought to bring Thomas and Cherise out of this place. So what if that entailed a scathing argument from Thomas the whole way home? He was her responsibility.
“No way we’re leaving.” Thomas sounded offended. “Not until I meet Ariock.”
Vy paced back and forth across dusty floor tiles, undecided. Ariock didn’t sound dangerous. He might need help, and besides, every time she told herself to leave, the imaginary harness tightened around her ribcage, a reminder that she should never have come here in the first place. Her mother would never trust her again.
Her mother would never turn her back on a person who needed her help.
“Then we’ll meet him.” Vy stopped pacing. “Just for a few minutes.” That should be long enough to determine whether she could help Ariock or not.