Teenagers made Thomas feel like a xeno-anthropologist immersed in an alien society.  Their moods shifted so fast, they seemed iridescent, like butterfly wings.

“Do you ever miss going to school?” Vy asked as they pulled into the crowded high school parking lot.

“Nope.”  Thomas had spent much of his life convincing adults that homework was nothing but a waste of his time.  Once he absorbed a tidbit of information, he never forgot it.  His memory was as flawless as a digital recorder.  He could replay any experience he had absorbed, and study it frame-by-frame.  

That was how he cheated his way through life.  

That, and his secret telepathic ability. 

A couple of athletic boys walked close enough for Thomas to overhear the mental gist of their conversation.  They were concerned about an upcoming basketball game, and girls.  

Thomas sensed their satisfied exhaustion from basketball practice.  That was nothing that he could relate to.  His neuromuscular disease prevented his muscles from gaining strength.  He was skeletal and underdeveloped below his neck. 

“There’s Cherise,” Vy said. 

Thomas peered through Vy’s perceptions.  He saw Cherise standing at a curb, waiting for a school bus and failing to blend in with the crowd of white kids.  Thick bangs and glasses did little to shield her face. 

Vy rolled down a window and waved.  “Hey!  Cherise!” 

Their dented red minivan was easy to recognize, with its handicap plate.  Cherise adjusted her backpack and hurried towards them. 

A gangly, smug-looking teenager followed her.  He leaned close to speak in Cherise’s ear.  She sped up, eager to get away from him. 

She wasted no time in climbing into the passenger seat of the minivan.

As soon as she was within Thomas’s range of telepathy, he sensed her mood, prickly with humiliation.  She knew—and therefore Thomas knew—that the gangly kid had acted fake-friendly.  “See ya tomorrow, hottie,” he had said to Cherise.  “Maybe you’ll learn to say hi to me.” 

No one else seemed to notice Roy’s cruelty. 

Thomas absorbed memories from Cherise so often, he knew her life.  He knew exactly how it felt to eat alone in the school cafeteria.  Sometimes Roy stared at Cherise from another table.  Sometimes he slammed her sketchbook shut without warning.  

And today? 

Today Roy had followed Cherise down a crowded hallway, between classes.  He had lurched at her like an attack dog, and he’d laughed at her flinching reaction.  

Everyone knew that Cherise hardly ever talked.  Roy must feel safe.  She wouldn’t report him. 

“Stop the van.”  Thomas could not reach the toggle button for the window, so he had to add, “Roll down my window.”

Vy had no intention of stopping. 

But fate intervened.  A group of teenagers crossed her path, and Vy was forced to stop anyway.  

She used the driver’s door controls to roll down his window, letting in a flow of icy air.  “What’s up?” 

“Hey, Roy!” Thomas called. 

!!!  Panic spiked from Cherise.  

“Roy!”  Thomas called, making sure the asshole heard him.  “Come here!”

“What are you doing?” Vy asked.  

The bully ambled towards Thomas’s open window with an expression of private amusement.  “What’s up?”  His gaze flicked from Thomas to Cherise, then back again.  “Sweet handicap van.”

The cold wind made Thomas’s eyes water.  He ignored it and probed Roy’s mind.  

Like planets, minds had ecosystems and biomes.  Emotions gave them texture.  Memories comprised their structure.  Thomas found an eddy of vulnerability in Roy’s mind, and he followed it downward, towards a deep chasm of buried humiliations.  

“I saw a YouTube video of you.”  Roy smirked.  “Baby Einstein, right?  Hey, Latina!  Your little boyfriend is adorbs.”

“Who are you?” Vy asked, her tone a threat.  

Thomas studied the worst memories of Roy’s life.  “Roy,” he said.  “I wonder if your mom would pour her vomit bucket over you again, if she saw how you treat Cherise?”

Roy looked as if he’d been punched.  

Thomas imitated the shrill, drunken tone of Roy’s mother.  “You’ve got to clean your underwear better, baby Roy!”  He laughed, imitating Roy’s cruelty. 

That caused something like an earthquake of rage.  

“Drive!” Thomas said, a split second before Roy’s hands reached through the window to strangle him.  

The minivan rolled forward.  Roy fell away with a short scream of pain. 

“What the hell?”  Vy radiated anger.  It was partly aimed at Roy, but Thomas sensed that she was also angry at him, for starting a fight. 

Cherise, though…

Her unspoken inner voice felt as delicate as snowflakes.  That was awesome.

Behind them, Roy jumped to his feet, roaring mad.  “I know where you freaks live!”  

“Oh?  You’d better be careful in that new Audi you’re so proud of,” Thomas called through the open window.  “Your reckless driving is likely to get you killed.” 

“What?” Vy said. 

Roy seemed just as shocked.  He jogged to catch up with the slowly rolling minivan, his eyes wild with rage and sudden fear. 

“Yeah.  I’m sorry, Roy.”  Thomas made himself sound sympathetic.  “I can’t help knowing things.  Knowledge just comes to me.”  He held his weak hands apart.  “A bend in the road, and…”  He smacked his hands together, although he was too weak for that to make any noise.  

Roy looked stricken with terror.  Teenagers gathered to watch, curious.  

“Sorry.”  Thomas let his hands fall.  “If your mom gets wasted at your funeral, I hope she doesn’t puke on your coffin.”

Vy stomped on the brake.  She radiated fury like a boiling cauldron.  

“You lying freak.”  Roy looked ugly with fear. 

“I never lie,” Thomas said.  

Roy’s face contorted.  “If—”

“—If you were really psychic…”  Thomas spoke in mocking sync with the bully.  “…it would be world news or something.”  

He could speak in precise sync with anyone.  He had sensed every word well up in Roy’s mind. 

The window began to slide closed, controlled by Vy.  

“Hey!”  Thomas glared at her.

“You’ve made your point,” Vy said.  

Their minivan rolled towards the road.  Behind them, Roy shouted something in a pleading tone.  The crowd of teenagers whispered and used their phones to record the scene.  One said “…like Professor X?” in a hushed tone. 

“I wasn’t done,” Thomas said.

“Yes, you are.”  Vy signaled a turn onto the street.  “I don’t know who that kid is, or what he did to you.  Or to Cherise.”  She glanced at their foster sister.  “But Thomas?  Death threats aren’t okay.  You can’t go around threatening people.” 

As if he needed a lecture. 

Thomas curled his fingers into weak imitations of fists.  He wasn’t strong enough to toggle the window button, let alone win an argument with his caretaker, but he was sick of being treated like a disabled child. 

Most people saw his withered limbs, his concave chest, and his sagging spine, and they assumed he was helpless.  

Even Vy.  

He supposed it was difficult to respect someone who needed help using a toilet.  Vy saw him in his weakest moments.  She would never take him seriously.  

“That kid deserved worse,” Thomas said.  “He was threatening Cherise.” 

“How do you know that?”  Vy glanced at him in the rearview mirror, frustrated and suspicious.  “Are you just guessing?” 

Thomas growled.  Sometimes he thought he should just tell Vy about his ability.  She probably wouldn’t tell the whole world.  Probably not. 

Thank you.  Appreciation glowed from Cherise.  She felt safer, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.  

Thomas relaxed.  He could bask in that glow forever.  Moments like this made everything else worthwhile. 

Their minivan passed the familiar chain-link fences, dilapidated houses, and rusting auto parts of their neighborhood.  Thomas saw poverty, and he knew that Vy saw poverty as well.  But Cherise? 

Cherise noticed a cheerfully painted sled.  

She saw a harvest wreath that defied the wintry frost.  

She had a way of seeing beauty just about anywhere.  Whenever Thomas saw the world filtered through Cherise, everything seemed nice.  He loved that.  

If only she could stay with him at home, while he used his laptop to fine-tune the medicine he was developing with the Rasa Biotech team.  She didn’t deserve to suffer the indignities of school. 

Vy cleared her throat.  “You said you never lie.” 

“Yup,” Thomas admitted.  

It was true.  He might say misleading things, but he only spoke facts.  He had been born with an enormous advantage over other people.  As far as he knew—and he knew a lot—no one else in the world could read minds.  If he resorted to telling direct lies, then he would be a bully.  He would be no different than a natural athlete shoving disabled children out of wheelchairs.  

“You told that kid that he’ll die in a car wreck,” Vy stated flatly.  

Her unspoken accusation was loud and clear.  She believed that Thomas had lied. 

“No,” Thomas said, correcting her.  “If you paid attention to my wording, I was only speculating out loud.  I used words such as ‘if’ and it’s ’likely.’  I never said he’ll die.  He just inferred the worst case scenario from what I said.” 

Vy groaned.  

Thomas pretended that he couldn’t hear her low opinion of him.  So what if his caretaker believed he was some sort of bully?  Vy was wrong.  

Most people were wrong.  

Not Thomas.  He saw the truths behind fake expressions and casual fibs. 

I saw kids recording that scene on their phones, Cherise thought.  It will get passed around the whole school.  Might go viral on social media. 

“People will assume it was staged,” Thomas said, answering her unspoken concern for him.  “No one believes kids.”  

He tried not to sound too bitter.  Even if his medical breakthrough saved a million lives, people would continue to assume that he was a hoax.  

He needed to get past puberty.  In order to do that, he needed to live to adulthood.  

Painful spinal injections of nusinersen might get him there.  But that drug was more expensive than the Hollander Home could afford, and its side effects might kill him anyway.  NAI-12, his neuronal apoptosis inhibitor, was a much better option.  It was what he needed—whether or not it got approved for clinical trials. 

“Anyway,” Thomas said to Cherise, “you don’t deserve to be treated like that.  It was worth a risk.” 

Vy eyed them both with unease, but she refrained from making a comment.  She was familiar with their half-verbal conversations.  

Everyone in the Hollander Home knew about the friendship between Thomas and Cherise.  Well, they knew that Cherise spent hours in Thomas’s bedroom, anyway.  Was she doing homework, or drawing in one of her sketchbooks, or…?  

No one quite dared to ask. 

And Thomas didn’t mind their unspoken suspicions.  He liked to keep people guessing.  Their unanswered questions imbued him with an aura of mystique, which gave him a little bit of power.  

He used to be truly helpless.  He had always been a disabled child in the foster care system, and that meant some bitter and sad years, before he’d gained any scientific credibility.  He never wanted to feel that way again. 

“What on Earth?”  Vy braked the minivan. 

A woman stood in their gravel driveway. 

Thomas switched his focus to Vy’s perceptions for a better view.  It was someone from the audience of his Rasa Biotech panel; the woman with dark sunglasses and plastic-looking skin.  Her breath made puffs in the frosty air.  She wore a black overcoat which contrasted sharply against her curly blond hair.

“She’s not moving out of my way,” Vy said.  “Weird.  I wonder what she wants?” 

Cherise said nothing.  However, Thomas was close enough to overhear her thoughts, and he sensed Cherise’s speculation that this woman looked like Thomas.  

She had his coloring.  The same narrow chin.  Also, his wide forehead.  Was she an unknown, unanticipated family member? 

Like … his birth mother? 

Thomas’s heartbeat sped up.  He tried to smooth down his excitement, reminding himself that his birth parents seemed uninterested in claiming him.  Ever since he had begun to speak in public, garnering funding for his project at Rasa Biotech, journalists and other celebrity-chasers wanted a piece of his meager fame.  He got invited to sell products.  Idiots invited him to endorse their ideas or their lame college projects.  

A C.I.A. think tank had even approached him, covertly.  

That federal agent had pretended to be a friendly journalist, and Thomas had likewise pretended.  He had done his best to act ignorant and childishly innocent, misleading the “journalist” without outright lying to her.  

Sometimes he felt like a performer balancing on a tightrope.  He needed to maintain just enough credibility to manage a team of neuroscientists.  Only that, and no more.  Too much hype would put him under a magnifying glass, and if the world found out how he cheated … well, everyone who’d praised him would reduce him to a lab rat. 

Might this strange woman be an undercover agent for some think tank? 

Or she might be a con artist trying to cash in on Thomas’s fame.  Maybe she hoped to trick him into believing that she was his birth mother?


She might be the real deal. 

A memory haunted Thomas.  It was so faded that it might be only a dream, but he had carried it with him for as long as he’d existed. 

Frigid cold.  Falling snow.  A twinned glow from distant headlights.  And a woman with curly blond hair, walking away from him, beneath snow-laden pines.  

She had left him—a newborn infant—to die alone in the woods. 

She never glanced back.  No matter how he yearned for her to turn around, he never saw her face. 

“I’d like to meet her.”  Thomas eyed the stranger without actually looking at her.  He peered through the eyes of Cherise and Vy, shifting from one foster sister to the other.  “Can we just park here, and find out what she wants?”  He fidgeted, signaling to Vy that he wanted someone to undo his straps and lower his wheelchair.