“I don’t like this,” Vy said, squeezing the steering wheel.
Frozen branches scraped the minivan’s roof, like feeble prisoners trying to hold them back. Snowflakes appeared and vanished as they passed through the headlights.
“There!” Thomas said. “Turn left.”
Vy steered onto a lane that was so overgrown, she had trouble seeing it in the darkness. She had no idea how Thomas had spotted it from the rear compartment.
Well, perhaps she had some idea. He might have peered through Cherise’s eyes.
“I really don’t like this.” Vy was still processing the secrets which Thomas had told her.
At the same time, she had to pay attention to the potholes. They seemed to have discovered an abandoned road. Trees formed a dense tunnel. Their trunks flashed in her headlights like ghostly figures, and their gnarled roots had torn the asphalt into chunks.
It would make for an excellent place to explore in daylight.
Ever since they’d exited the highway, Vy had felt the van climbing, mostly uphill. They must be on mountain slopes. Perhaps this road led to a forgotten overlook or something, with a view of the tree-shrouded mountains and a lot of sky.
“Dovanack?” Thomas said.
Vy began to ask him what he was talking about.
Then she saw it. Their minivan rattled beneath an arc of wrought iron, with the name DOVANACK spelled in the arc. Snow capped each black letter.
The rusted gates appeared to be wrenched askew.
Crap, Vy thought. This must be private property.
“Please don’t stop!” Thomas was pleading. “Holy crap. If anything, it’s even more important that we see what’s at the end of this road. I’ve soaked up local lore, and guess what?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “There was an alleged psychic named Garrett Dovanack who used to live around here. People claimed that he was a mind reader! This might be his house!”
Vy tightened her mouth. Thomas could afford to be enthused. No one would blame the disabled child if the three of them got caught trespassing. All the blame would fall on her shoulders.
“I told you,” Thomas said, “I’ll take the blame. I promise.”
Vy almost wished she hadn’t learned about his power. It was creepy to think that her foster brother rummaged around inside people’s private lives, soaking up every single moment of their life history.
“Can you please not read my mind?” she asked.
“You assume I have a choice.” Thomas snorted. “You’re in my four yard range. Anyway, don’t worry. Your deepest and darkest secrets are pretty mild. I’ve seen worse.”
Vy tried not to speculate.
Despite her resolve, her brain ran with it. “You can see criminals,” she realized. “Murderers who never got caught? Things like that?”
“Yes.” His tone was dark. “Things like that.”
Vy glanced in the rearview mirror, trying to catch his gaze. If Thomas could detect bad guys in any crowd, then why didn’t he report them?
He could probably devote his life to delivering justice.
“One life goal is enough for me.” Thomas indicated the NAI-12 briefcase in the pocket of his wheelchair. “Anyway, I used to try reporting them.” His tone got quiet. “It causes blowback. Arrests have repercussions on family members, and if I’m around, soaking that up…” He trailed off, as reevaluating whatever he had been about to say. “I’ve found that my interference just compounds the misery.”
“Oh.” Vy suspected that she had prodded a wound. The dark undertone to Thomas’s voice hinted at buried pain.
It might be worth discussing with him sometime. Vy’s foster siblings all tended to carry shame and blame that ought to belong to the abusive members of their birth families. Children were innocent by nature, yet they became receptacles for adult misdeeds.
Whatever darkness Thomas was beating himself up for, it must have happened when he was too young to be an instigator. He had come to the Hollander Home as a ten-year-old.
“Holy crap.” Thomas sounded amazed.
A second later, Vy saw why.
An immense building loomed ahead. Hundreds of black windows gaped, toothy with icicles. The granite walls were like cliffs, capped by steep black roofs which blended with the jagged pine forest.
The mansion was entirely dark and still.
“It looks derelict.” Vy followed the circular driveway around a frozen fountain. The snow was pristine and undisturbed.
She parked next to a snarling lion statue. It was one of a pair which flanked the snow-blanketed front steps.
“We shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“Are you kidding me?” Thomas sounded excited. “If Garrett Dovanack was ultra rich, that’s evidence that he was a real mind reader! Do you have any idea how easy it is for me to win games? Not to mention insider trading. It would be a cinch for a mind reader to grow a fortune.”
Vy understood how many disadvantaged kids daydreamed about discovering that they were actually related to millionaires.
“Is Garrett still alive?” she asked gently.
“Probably not,” Thomas admitted. “If he is, then he’d have to be over a hundred years old. But so what? Maybe he had a family, or left some kind of legacy, or something. Maybe I’m his great-great-grandson?”
Vy studied the mansion. It looked too large to be a residence. Perhaps it was a private college?
“It could be an institute for gifted mutants,” Thomas said with insinuation.
Vy supposed that a telepathic kid like Thomas probably daydreamed about being discovered and befriended by the X-Men, or the Justice League, or some academy full of superheroes.
“Garrett’s initials spell GOD,” Thomas said. “Garrett Olmstead Dovanack. Doesn’t that open up some questions?”
Vy had plenty to think about already. She didn’t want to add another twig to the pile of questions in her mind.
“Hm. Well.” She shifted the van into drive. “I guess we’ve seen what’s on the map. Let’s come back when there’s daylight.”
“No!” Thomas sounded hurt. “We have to ring the doorbell, at least!”
“Sorry.” Vy felt guilty for letting him down.
His angst made him sound like a typical kid. That was rare.
Vy glanced up towards the mansion’s ornate double doors. Was there any harm in indulging Thomas’s curiosity? The undisturbed snow proved that no one had driven up here to set a trap, or to lay in wait. And judging by the state of the hidden driveway and the broken gate, she doubted that anyone lived here.
“Fine.” Vy sighed, ashamed by how easily she caved in. “We’ll ring the doorbell.”
She supposed she wanted to scope the place out, and learn if anyone was home. That would tell her whether or not she could risk coming back to explore. Not all of her friends were storm-chasers, but they did like to discover niche, unknown places.
Frost began to appear on the windshield as soon as Vy shut off the engine. It must be well below freezing outside. She walked to the rear of the van, her boots grinding on fresh snow.
“This is crazy,” she remarked as she lowered Thomas’s wheelchair.
“Yup,” Thomas said happily.
Cherise smiled, clearly gladdened by her best friend’s happiness.
The front entrance steps included a concrete ramp for accessibility, which furthered Vy’s suspicions that this was an academy or institution. Although … why wasn’t it listed on internet map searches?
They were in a dark zone on maps. This was uncharted territory.
As Vy pushed Thomas’s wheelchair through the snow, Cherise climbed the stairs. Each of the double doors had an iron knocker, gripped by a lion’s head and veined with frost. Cherise lifted a knocker and pounded it against a door, several times.
The hollow knocking sound rolled through the silence like muffled thunder.
“Charming,” Vy said.
Cherise made a helpless gesture.
“There’s no doorbell,” Thomas explained.
Vy’s teeth had begun to chatter from the cold. She pulled up her hood.
“We’ll give this one minute,” Vy said. “Then we’re….”
One of the massive doors swung inward a bit. Someone peered through the crack at them.
Vy steeled herself for an unpleasant hermit or a violent squatter. Maybe an undead butler. Instead, the person peering through the door appeared to be a woman with grey hair and a suspicious expression, heavyset, perhaps a decade older than her mother.
“Can I help you?” the middle-aged woman asked in a suspicious tone.
Vy offered an apologetic smile.
Before she could apologize for being intrusive or trespassing, Thomas spoke. “Lynn?” He had an intensely focused look, and Vy realized that he must be reading the woman’s mind, soaking up all sorts of personal secrets. “Lynn Dovanack? Would it be possible for me to meet your son? I believe I can help him.”
The woman’s eyes widened. She looked shocked.
“Let me in, please.” Thomas didn’t wait for permission. He powered his wheelchair past the door and the woman, as if he owned the place.
“Sorry.” Vy hurried after Thomas and Cherise, mortified. She was used to Thomas wielding words like weapons, mixing insinuations until he provoked the reactions he wanted. But now that she knew how easy it was for him, his skill no longer seemed magical.
It seemed like an unfair advantage. It was intrusive.
“We’ll leave,” Vy assured the middle-aged woman whom Thomas had identified as a Dovanack. “I’m so sorry. We’ll leave right away.”
She grabbed Thomas’s wheelchair.
She knew how rude that was. Thomas’s wheelchair was his version of legs, so seizing it was like purposing tripping her foster brother. It went against her instincts as a caretaker.
But, well, he was being rude. How else was she supposed to stop him?
“Wait.” Lynn blocked their exit. “How do you know I have a son?” Her gaze was quite unfriendly. “How do you know anything about us?”
“I’m a mind reader.” Thomas made it sound like no big deal, although he had asked Vy to never reveal his ability to anyone. Never in public. Never to strangers. Those were his rules.
Vy released his wheelchair and stared at him.
“Tell me the truth,” Lynn demanded.
She was apparently unaware that Thomas had just revealed a dearly held secret about himself. So she probably wasn’t telepathic.
Vy pulled down her hood and stared around the cavernous foyer, lit by bronze wall sconces. “Is this a private residence?” A mansion this size should be able to house at least a hundred people. Surely it was an institute?
More to the point, Vy didn’t want to be a trespasser.
“Yes, this is my home.” Lynn folded her arms. “I live here with my son.”
Vy swallowed, full of shame. Judging by the woman’s comfy sweatpants and pullover, she had been in bed, or getting ready for bed, when the ominous sound of knocking had ruined her peaceful night. She wore slippers.
“Now it’s your turn to answer questions,” Lynn said with frost in her tone. “Who are you? And why are you here?”
“I’m Thomas Hill.” Thomas powered his wheelchair closer to Lynn. He had a hungry, focused look, like he was reading a particularly fascinating book.
“This is Cherise,” Vy said. “And I’m Vy.” She decided not to volunteer surnames. People with excessive amounts of money could wield political clout, so this Dovanack woman might make trouble for the Hollander Home, if she felt like it.
“Anyway,” Vy tried to laugh, “it’s a long story about how we got here. It was a mistake. A total misunderstanding.”
She wished she had never parked the van. Somehow, Thomas must have fallen for a practical joke. Vy wished that she had obeyed her own common sense, and driven home, no matter what Thomas and Cherise wanted.
“We’re so sorry for barging in,” Vy went on. “We’ll get out of your hair.” She glared at Thomas. “Right, Thomas?”
“Nope.” Thomas didn’t even look at her. He stayed focused on Lynn, as if enchanted. “I can help Ariock. I told you the truth. I’m a mind reader.”
Lynn looked outraged, perplexed, and generally miserable.
Thomas rotated his wheelchair and powered towards a dim corridor. “Will you please let Ariock know he has a visitor? I think he’s someone I need to meet.”
“What!” Lynn rushed after Thomas as if he might wreck her life. “No! Who are you?”
Thomas gave a frustrated sigh without slowing down. “You grew up in Manhattan. You married William Dovanack when you were thirty. Your son is uniquely tall. You have a medical secret, and I know about that, too, because I’m a mind reader.”
Lynn looked like she might cry.
Vy hurried to catch up. She understood how alarming it was to hear Thomas speak about things he really shouldn’t know. It was creepy. And he wasn’t being gentle with Lynn. He seemed to be bludgeoning her with his power, uncaring about her feelings, as if she was nothing more than an obstacle.
As Vy tried to think of a way to reign him in, Cherise jogged ahead.
Thomas’s tone softened. “I won’t reveal your personal secrets. Those are yours.” Perhaps he had absorbed the look Cherise was giving him. “But,” he went on, “I sense your worries about Ariock. Let me meet him, and talk to him. Trust me.” He indicated himself. “I know what it’s like to be unique.”
Vy glanced around the corridor, looking for any sign of Lynn’s “unique” son.
The place was dim and dusty. A cobweb fuzzed one of the chandeliers. Wall sconces cast a dull glow on painted portraits, but none of the portraits looked particularly unique.
“I don’t know who you are.” Lynn sounded defeated and helpless.
“Maybe I’m a friend of your family.” Thomas powered down the corridor. “Maybe I’m a long-lost family member.”
Lynn shook her head, as if everything he’d said was unbelievable.
“Oh, come on.” Thomas sounded defensive. “It’s possible, isn’t it?”
If the portraits on display were Dovanack family members, then Vy privately thought that Lynn was right. Thomas looked nothing like them. The Dovanack family shared bold facial traits, with strong noses and chins. They all had dark hair.
Thomas halted his wheelchair, gazing up at an oil portrait of an old man. “I have the same power as old Garrett. Don’t I?”
Lynn put her hands on her hips. She seemed to regain a little bit of dignity. “You’re referring to all the newspaper articles about him. And all the stupid gossip.”
Thomas gave her a probing look.
“Garrett was just smart and insightful.” Lynn sounded disparaging. “Not a psychic. I knew him well. If he could read minds, I would have known.”
“Uh huh,” Thomas said dryly. “People say I’m just smart and insightful.”
Lynn folded her arms. “Why would he hide it from me? And his own grandson? Will would have known.”
Thomas looked unconvinced.
“Garrett was normal.” Lynn seemed to emphasize that. “Our family is normal.” She gestured at the portraits. “I don’t know what you’re expecting to find here, but we aren’t a family of psychics, or…” She faltered. “Or mutants.”
“Right.” Thomas wheeled onward, leading the way down the corridor.
“Ariock has a growth disorder,” Lynn called, hurrying to catch up with Thomas. “That’s all.”
Thomas’s tone was dry. “He’s taller than the tallest person in recorded history. Oh, and he has absolutely zero health problems, despite being gigantic. He has a super-strong musculoskeletal structure. No acromegaly. No distended joints or tendon problems or anything. He’s strong enough to lift a fridge by himself, with ease.” Thomas’s tone became sarcastic. “Nothing unusual about that. Nope. Totally normal.”
Lynn’s face was pale with shock.
“I’m so sorry,” Vy said. She wondered if she should grab the wheelchair and force Thomas to turn around. He had clearly lost all civility. She was the adult, and his trespassing rudeness was technically her fault. She ought to take on the responsibility of stopping him.
Except … Vy inwardly admitted that she burned with curiosity.
Thomas would never reveal his telepathic power to a stranger, unless he believed there was an important reason to do so. He seemed eager to meet Ariock. That made Vy curious to meet the giant, as well.
And this hidden mansion? It held secrets. Vy could tell that just by glancing into dark rooms, where the shadows were so black, they seemed alive.
There were statues. Pillars. Urns. Marble tiles and chandeliers.
This place seemed built for a large family, plus a household staff. Where were all those missing people? Did Lynn and Ariock truly live alone in this palace?
“You obviously know too much,” Lynn said.
She didn’t say it in a threatening tone. Nevertheless, Vy tensed up.
Thomas gave her a belligerent look. “When Ariock’s growth began to go off normal range charts, you took him to a specialist consultant at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. I absorbed that memory from your mind. Not only can I recite Doctor Beland’s diagnosis, about Ariock not having any pituitary adenoma; I can draw, from memory, every person in the lobby who stared at him. Because that scene is etched into your memory. It made you feel like a bad mother.”
Lynn looked properly horrified.
“Do I need to remember every pair of socks you’ve ever worn?” Thomas asked in a rhetorical way. “No, I do not. I hate absorbing irrelevant crap. But I can’t help absorbing everything.” He emphasized the last sentence. “I have an inability to forget.”
Vy studied her foster brother with fresh curiosity. Telepathy was a superpower, but combined with a flawless memory….
Human memories were not designed for infinite capacity. They weren’t computers. Information overload would, or should, drive a person insane.
“How can you function?” Vy asked.
Thomas gave her a grateful nod of acknowledgement. “It’s hard,” he admitted. “I remember the earliest years of my life as a jumble of incoherent data. I wasn’t even verbal before the age of four. I just struggled to cope with the overload of information from other people’s perceptions and memories. It took me years to figure out how to function.”
People might have mistaken young Thomas for being developmentally disabled, in addition to his obvious physical disability.
“Oh,” Vy said.
“Yup,” Thomas said with bitterness. “I used to be the epitome of ‘unwanted child.’”
“I’m sorry.” Vy felt clumsy, like she had accidentally hit an unhealed bruise. No wonder Thomas was distrustful of adults. And no wonder the foster care system had struggled to find a permanent home for him.
“All right.” Lynn seemed to come to a decision.
Thomas watched her avidly.
“I’ll tell Ariock.” Lynn strode ahead, moving with brisk purpose. “Wait for me to come back. I’ll let him know we have three unexpected guests.”
Her words seemed to echo in the cavernous hallway, throughout empty rooms.
“Thanks!” Thomas seemed smug. He parked his wheelchair, having secured the introduction he wanted. Cherise lounged against a wall.
Vy paced, gazing at dust-shrouded furniture and wondering what she had gotten herself into.