Shadows appeared to squirm in the depths of every room they passed. Dust sheets shrouded blocky shapes, protecting what Vy assumed were antique pieces of furniture. She imagined the giant Ariock lurking in this labyrinthine house, amidst delicate chandeliers and statues, like the minotaur of ancient mythology. Maybe he didn’t live in the mansion at all. She imagined a Gothic cellar, with vaulted ceilings built for a man who was . . .
“Well over nine feet tall,” Thomas had said.
She reminded herself that the giant deserved sympathy, no matter how grotesque his body happened to be. He was probably debilitated by uncontrolled growth. In all likelihood, he’d need a cane in order to walk.
“He’s not debilitated at all, Vy,” Thomas said. “I told you, he has a unique form of gigantism, with nothing to operate on. No pituitary adenoma or lesion. He’s in great health. In fact, the last time he visited a doctor, they determined that his skeleton is super-strong.”
Lynn eyed Thomas sideways, apparently unnerved by how much he knew about her hidden son.
He gave her a belligerent look. “Ten years ago,” he said, “you took Ariock to the Children’s Hospital in Boston. I know the name of the specialist consulting on his case, and the faces of everyone in the lobby who stared at him. I can’t help absorbing information. It’s as automatic as breathing, to me. Every memory comes with a crap-ton of miscellaneous junk that all sticks here.” He gestured to his head. “You’re lucky, because you can forget. I can’t.”
Lynn looked skeptical.
“Without exception,” Thomas said, as if she had argued. “I wish I could forget things. I don’t need to know every pair of socks you’ve ever worn. Ninety-nine percent of everything I absorb is irrelevant.”
Vy had heard him discuss bioengineering and nucleotides with top scientists. If that was just a fraction of his absorbed knowledge. . . . “How can you function?” She studied him with new curiosity. “That sounds like it would drive a person insane.”
“I needed years to develop coping skills.” Thomas sounded bitter about it. “I had no idea what I was doing until I was four years old.”
Lynn rolled her eyes.
“Well, that’s normal,” Vy pointed out.
“Not for me,” Thomas said. “I recall every wakeful instant. My mind is like a camera set on constant RECORD. My earliest memories are a disorganized jumble, but I’m sure my own birth is in there somewhere. I probably have memories of being a fetus. It’s just all a mess—colors and daydreams mixed up with tastes and emotions. I began to make sense of the constant flood when I was four. Before then, I couldn’t talk sensibly. People assumed I was mentally disabled.” The bitterness was back in his voice. “Just a grossly disabled baby. No one wanted me.”
None of this seemed like news to Cherise. She pushed his wheelchair, her face smooth.
“Do you remember other people’s memories, too?” Vy tried to imagine collecting that much information.
“Of course,” Thomas said. “Depending on how long they’re within my range. I know you very well.” He gave her a look that seemed to blaze. “I’ve experienced the equivalent of hundreds of lifetimes.”
“I can’t believe no one’s locked you away,” Lynn muttered. She put distance between herself and him.
Thomas looked appreciative. “That’s why I keep it a secret. I’m like Ariock, in that way. I have a quality that would make me world-famous, if the world knew. I understand the need to avoid the spotlight.”
Vy frowned, keeping pace with his wheelchair. “You’ve never avoided the spotlight, that I’ve seen.”
“Sure, I’m a poster child for Spinal Muscular Atrophy.” Thomas waved his hand dismissively. “That’s minor. I give cute little interviews so my project at Rasa Biotech keeps getting funded. But I never tell the public what I’m truly capable of.” He gave her a frank look. “Because then I’d never be in charge of my own life. Governments and corporations would fight over who gets to use me. I have enough trouble trying to have some control over my life, struggling to gain some respect. If my work colleagues ever learn what I can do, they’ll strip away all my accolades and reduce me to a lab rat.”
Lynn paused at the doorway to a brightly lit room, weighing Thomas with her gaze.
“I trust you to keep my secret,” Thomas told her. “I want us to trust one another.”
“You took a risk,” Lynn said, after a moment.
“I do that every so often.” Thomas shrugged as best he could.
Lynn seemed to soften a little bit. “I’ll keep your secret.” She swept past them, through the doorway. “Just don’t betray mine.”
Cherise followed, pushing Thomas in his wheelchair. They seemed untroubled by the unsmiling mother of a giant, and the chilly Dovanack mansion. Vy was used to warmer places. Even in the hospital, nurses broke the somber atmosphere by joking with each other.
She steeled herself for more antique artwork and gloom. Instead. . . .
A large-screen TV played her favorite show, volume muted. A lofty ceiling accommodated an indoor balcony that faced an enormous glass wall. Snow sifted down beyond the glass. It was like an advertisement for suburban living. Photographic prints of cityscapes adorned plain white walls. Vy felt as if she’d crossed a threshold back into her own world.
“This is the sky room.” Lynn padded across the beige-carpeted floor. “We can see all the way to Canada on a clear day.”
Perhaps Lynn was trying to distract them from staring at the truck-sized furniture. The sofa was wide enough to seat all six 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.
“Ariock?” Lynn faced the shadowy area beneath the indoor balcony. “These are the people I told you about.”
He sat in an armchair. At first Vy was confused, because he looked normal, neither monstrous nor freakish. His bold features and dark hair matched the oil paintings of his family members.
However, as she drew closer, the rules of perspective seemed askew. His size didn’t match his distance away. His shoulders must be as wide as a snowplow. His huge hands would probably have trouble with anything delicate, like a cell phone.
Thomas spoke in a reassuring tone. “We’re not going to snap your photo. I promise.”
“I trust him.” Lynn sounded as if she had doubts.
The giant made no response. Only his deep-set eyes moved, locking on Vy as if he expected an assault. He seemed determined not to move or breathe.
Vy studied him for signs of poor health. If left untreated, gigantism led to enfeeblement, as the constant growth outstripped the limits that a human body was designed for. But Ariock didn’t look fragile. In fact, he looked strong enough to lift up the nearby refrigerator and toss it aside.
“Vy doesn’t mean to stare,” Thomas said in a pointed tone. “She’s sorry.”
“Oh!” Vy forced herself to look elsewhere, cheeks hot as she realized just how long she’d been studying Ariock. “I’m really sorry.” It was hard not to stare. Despite the stiff way he held himself in the armchair, there was majesty in his sheer size.
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. He plainly didn’t believe Thomas.
“I swear.” Thomas parked his wheelchair. “I came here looking for my birth family. Someone gave me a map to your house, labeled with your name. She wanted me to meet you.”
“We’ve already settled this,” Lynn said. “You’re not related.” She folded her arms. “Who gave you the map? You need to tell me. Not many people know that Ariock exists. Really, it should be no one.”
“The government has to know,” Vy said. “I assume he has a social security number.” She glanced at Ariock, hoping he didn’t mind people talking about him.
“Of course he exists on paper,” Lynn said. “He has a trust fund. But no one has seen him in ten years.”
Ariock still hadn’t moved. He was like a statue. Only his eyes gave any hint that he was alive.
“That’s a long time.” Vy sat on a dresser that looked hand-made. Maybe if she got more comfortable, he would relax, too. “You must think we’re terribly rude,” she told him. “I swear, Thomas has wanted to meet his birth family since, like, forever. He was really sure he’d find them here.”
“And he’s wrong,” Lynn put in.
“Okay, fine.” Thomas shot her a disparaging look. “I’m not related to you. But you married into the family.” He nodded towards Ariock. “He’s the only actual Dovanack descendant left, and maybe I’m related to him. It’s worth a DNA test.”
Ariock shifted slightly, as if worried about the disagreement aimed at his mother.
Thomas went on. “I was abandoned in the woods, less than five miles from here, when I was a newborn infant. I had to have been born nearby. Maybe in this house.”
Ariock looked taken aback.
“That’s impossible!” Lynn looked outraged. “What sort of family do you think this is?”
“I’ll admit it’s unlikely—”
“I know what you’re really after.” Lynn jabbed her finger at Thomas. “Money. Well, I don’t care why you need it. You’re not related to Ariock, and you do not have our permission to do a DNA test.”
Lynn overrode his protest. “I don’t believe you really want the family that abandoned you. Why give up your nice foster family?” She glared at Vy. “They’re apparently a bunch of pushovers who let you do whatever you please.”
Vy swallowed her own humiliated anger. Maybe there was a grain of truth to the accusation.
“You’re afraid.” Thomas sounded like he was forcing himself to be civil to Lynn. “You think that if I claim to be related, it will force Ariock into a spotlight. But I told you—I promised—I won’t wreck his life.”
Ariock seemed like he wished he was anywhere else. The whole situation was getting worse by the second, so Vy stood and got ready to leave.
“We’re probably not related.” Thomas slumped, sounding dejected. “I think you’re right about that. Ariock has nothing in common with me. Well, other than being a tiny bit freakish.”
If that was calculated to make Lynn go nuclear, it worked. She looked ready to throw them out, and Vy couldn’t blame her, with such an unexpected insult hurled at her son.
But Ariock, oddly enough, looked more relieved than insulted. It was as if he accepted the freak label. Maybe to him, it was an elephant in the room, and he was glad to have it pointed to instead of danced around.
“I can read minds,” Thomas told him. “And I have a memory as flawless as a computer drive. So I’m wise beyond my years. You, on the other hand, have a completely ordinary mind.”
Ariock looked as if he didn’t believe that the word “ordinary” applied to him.
“Yep,” Thomas said. “You’re completely normal.” He seemed to reconsider. “Although you do make some idiotic assumptions. Like, my friend Cherise here isn’t staring at you in disgust. She’s just sizing up the best way to draw your portrait. She’s an artist.”
Vy jumped up, furious.
“And Vy here?” He gestured. “Believe me, she’s not an angelic visitor from the land of TV people. She’s as real as you are. And just about as boring.”
Vy grabbed the wheelchair handles. “We are leaving. I’m so sorry,” she told Ariock. “Sorry.” She wanted to keep babbling apologies . . . but she trailed off, because Ariock looked amused. He studied Thomas with silent fascination.
“You need a major reality check,” Thomas went on, still haranguing Ariock. “Your mom is not quietly praying that you’ll kill yourself so she can go on a tropical vacation. Really. She loves you. She wants to spend more time with you. You’d do her a huge favor by giving her some respect, and readjusting your perspective. Because you’re wrong.”
The surprise on Ariock’s face was almost comical. Even Lynn seemed speechless, gawking from Ariock to Thomas and back again.
“I was certain that I was the only mind reader in the world,” Thomas went on. “But I was wrong. A mind reader gave me a map with your name on it, and a route to your hidden house. They must be interested in you for some reason.”
Ariock looked guarded again. All traces of amusement were gone.
Vy tried to sound reassuring. “They might never show up.”
“Even if someone does show up,” Thomas said, “you don’t have to endure it alone. You’ll always be different from other people. But so what? You’re not that different.”
It was plain that Ariock didn’t trust these words. Without moving a muscle, he inspected one of his immense hands, as if waiting for them to go away and leave him alone. Vy had seen that perpetual wariness in terminal patients. They were immune to words of comfort.
“We can leave,” Vy offered, although she wanted to stay, if only to explore the sky room. Books overflowed three bookshelves. Most had titles that she loved or wanted to read. She recognized most of the video-games, too. Ariock seemed to share her tastes.
“I do understand,” Thomas said. “I spent my life scrambling to cure this fatal disease.” He gestured at his frail body. “It’s nearly impossible for a kid to work full-time, let alone gain respect from a major biotech company. I had to impress layers upon layers of adults. It took years. And the research itself was the biggest challenge of my life. Earlier this year, back in May, I gave up. I was ready to die.” Thomas dangled his arms over the armrests, as if he didn’t care who listened, but he seemed to have everyone’s attention. Even Lynn looked interested, despite herself. She sat in a normal-sized rocking chair.
“My research led to dead ends,” he went on. “My experiments were useless. At that point, I knew I’d failed, and I would die in adolescence. I had wasted my whole life on something futile. I wished I’d never been born.”
Vy recalled his springtime depression. He had stopped eating for a few days.
“So I decided I might as well make the most of my final months.” Thomas 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 gestured towards her. “We went on family trips. Like, canoeing, and sipping hot cocoa in a ski lodge. Things like that. I’d never experienced fun firsthand before.” He tapped his head. “I absorb other people’s memories, so in a way, I’ve experienced most things. But my own personal experiences are 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. They spent a lot of time together, but she’d never imagined that Cherise had something to do with his medical breakthrough.
“She insisted that I work,” Thomas said. “Whenever I stopped, she skipped meals and refused to sleep. So I tried a crazy off-the-wall approach. Instead of following the processes I’d absorbed from this or that scientist, I stitched together my own pastiche of their methods, and did something radically different that no one in their right mind would have taken seriously.” He patted his medicine case. “I’m going to live to adulthood because of Cherise. She saved my life.”
Cherise showed no sign of pride.
“I used to think it was impossible that anyone would care about me that much,” Thomas said. “If it’s possible for someone like me, then it’s definitely possible for you.”
Ariock seemed to gather his courage. When he spoke, his voice was so powerfully deep, the air seemed to vibrate. “Loneliness,” he said, “is worse than death.”
Thomas’s voice sounded as light as a breeze in comparison. “You would know, better than me.” He paused. “You’re too normal to treat yourself like a hermit. There’s no need.”
Ariock looked troubled, as if new options frightened him. His mother watched him with an odd expression, like someone witnessing a rainbow in the middle of winter.
“Honestly,” Vy said, surveying all the games and books. “There’s a lot of cool stuff here.” She gestured to the TV, silently playing the show she loved. “Have you seen the latest episode?”
“Yup,” Thomas replied, as Ariock looked guilty. “He’s watched every episode.”
“Well, I really like everything about this room. It’s so different from the rest of the house.” Vy ran her hand along the gigantic dresser, admiring its rustic solidness. “How did you get this huge furniture?”
“He made it himself,” Thomas said.
“That’s amazing!” Vy studied the gigantic couch, and the armchair that Ariock sat in. “I mean it,” she added, because he looked ashamed of his building skills. “These look professional.”
Lynn rocked in the rocking chair, proud. “He’s always reading,” she said. “Mostly history and carpentry and things like that.”
Vy imagined all the school subjects he’d missed. Then again, she supposed she’d already forgotten much of what she’d learned in trigonometry class.
Grade school must have been torturous for him. If he was over six feet tall before puberty, then he must have towered over teachers as well as classmates. There was no way for a gigantic kid to hide in a crowd. He’d be cramped in classroom desks, cramped on school buses, and already distanced from other kids due to his unusual family and inherited wealth. He might have gone for years without hearing a kind word.
“I hope no one ruins your privacy,” Vy told him—but it was an empty reassurance. Ariock Dovanack was undoubtedly the tallest person in the world. The news media just hadn’t discovered him yet. They would, sooner or later, and then hundreds of strangers would probably camp out on his snowy lawn, joking about the multi-millionaire giant and trying to snap his photo. Circus side shows were outlawed, but they would turn him into something akin to a circus freak. She supposed he had a solid reason for his agoraphobia.
“If you’d like . . .” Vy hesitated. If she returned home late at night, her mother would never trust her again. But this seemed more important. “We can stay longer.”
Ariock gave a nod. Despite a decade of misgivings about people, he seemed to want their company.
“Are you sure?” Lynn asked.
“It’s no problem.” Vy stood, heart pounding at her own daringness. “And if that mind reader shows up, we’ll help fend her off.”
“You’ll need me for that,” Thomas put in.
Cherise had gone to a cabinet, found a deck of cards, and unpacked them. Now she shuffled them like an expert. “Want me to teach you Poker?” She looked up at Ariock.
He gave a hesitant nod.
Vy stared at Cherise. She’d never seen this playful side of her foster sister. “When did you learn that?”
Cherise nodded towards Thomas. That was all the explanation needed.
“It’s not like I can enjoy Poker,” Thomas said. “Games are too easy for me to win, unless they’re mindless pure luck games, like the card game of War. But Cherise has a knack for card counting and a poker face. I’d be wary, playing against—”
A concussive blast drowned him out.
An explosive shock wave hurled Vy to her hands and knees, carrying a sound like shattered glass. Emergency, she thought. Accident.
Time sped up for her, the way it did whenever a medical squad burst into the hospital with a critically injured patient. Every second mattered. Death was imminent unless she acted on instinct, providing bandages or life-saving injections. But this wasn’t the emergency ward. A freezing wind gusted towards her, along with snowflakes.
The glass wall was gone. Shattered.
Dozens of people in high-tech armor rushed through the maw where glass should be. They moved like a S.W.A.T. team, coordinated for speed. Three jogged left, three jogged right, while the rest leaped onto the oversized furniture. Smooth helmets hid their faces. They wore high tech armor, contoured to their bodies, pearlescent white, with wires and glowing interfaces here and there.
Robotic power gloves aimed towards Ariock, as if he was a threat. He hadn’t even risen out of his armchair. His expression was pure stunned shock.
A ball bounced towards them. It was the size of a ping pong ball, but jets of blue smoke hissed from it in all directions.
The ball was going to land on Thomas’s lap. Vy sprinted towards him, to shove his wheelchair away from what might be a chemical weapon. “Run!” she shouted at Cherise.
Instead of fleeing, Cherise also hurled herself towards the wheelchair. Neither of them made it.
A black web flared in front of Vy, each segment telescoping and generating offshoots. She tried to thrash it out of her way. The thing clung to her like cobwebs, impossible to brush aside, stretching like rubber instead of breaking. 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.
Cherise struggled on the floor, encased in a similar black net.
“Why . . .” Thomas never finished his sentence. Blue smoke engulfed him, and he slumped sideways, as if his frail muscles had all quit at the same time.
A tiny object bounced towards Lynn. The instant it hit her, it unfurled into the same type of telescoping net that trapped Vy and Cherise. She flailed and screamed, but she couldn’t escape. She toppled over.
Only Ariock remained free. Vy hoped there were no nets large enough to trap a giant. She rolled so she could see him, silently rooting for him to kick out the intruders by any means necessary.
“Leave.” Ariock spoke to the intruders in a tone as cold and dark as the stones of his mansion.
They aimed their arm apparatuses at him. Tiny bullets whizzed through the air, unseen but whistling. Ariock flinched from several impacts, one after another.
“No!” Vy struggled, but she was entombed, her legs and arms bound tightly by the net.
Lynn whimpered. She seemed to be struggling to speak, or shout, but a blue miasma settled over her. The smoke that had knocked out Thomas was spreading through their half of the room.
Ariock stood, his joints popping, head tilted sideways to avoid hitting the balcony overhang. He looked unharmed. Whatever they’d shot him with, it wasn’t bullets. Maybe tranquilizers. He looked bleary-eyed as he glanced around, apparently searching for a weapon.
He seized the refrigerator and ripped it away from the back wall. It was a full-sized fridge, but Ariock handled it with ease, spinning it to prevent too many jars and containers from smashing on the floor. He heaved it back . . . then hurled it across the room.
The fridge sailed over the dresser, over an end table, straight towards the gigantic couch, where three of the faceless intruders stood.
They scattered like cockroaches. Vy blinked at their inhuman speed. People shouldn’t be so agile.
An instant later, the fridge struck, bounced, and toppled with a huge thud that shook the floor. By that time, the blue miasma had spread to Vy’s corner of the room. She wiggled, trying to jerk away from the tainted air, but she couldn’t escape fast enough. She began to feel dizzy and cold. Her veins filled with ice.
She wanted to warn Cherise about its death-like effect, but her throat felt frozen. All she managed was a strangled sound. Darkness narrowed her vision.
Stay awake! she silently screamed at herself.
Multiple nets unfurled around Ariock. He tore at them, ripping a few, but more and more unfurled. And Ariock seemed to be losing consciousness. He slumped to his knees, causing the floor to shake. He curled inward. Black nets wrapped him in a cocoon.
Vy bit her cheeks, trying to wake up, certain that Thomas and Cherise and other people needed her help. People always needed her help.
Maybe now, she needed their help. Terminal patients spoke of a frozen darkness. Foster children had nightmares about it. Here she was, and despite how hard she fought, the dark void was infinitely stronger. She was supposed to go home. Instead, she was going . . . somewhere else.