Linc has heard voices since he was a kid, but they’re not what they seem. He can hear other people’s thoughts, but the ability has left him friendless and homeless. When a mysterious group tracks him down and offers to help him, Linc isn’t sure what to think. Once he joins them he meets others like him, but can he trust them…
The first voice Linc heard in his head, beside his own, was his father’s. Linc had been eleven at the time. One morning, while eating breakfast, his father’s voice suddenly crackled to life inside Linc’s head. The memory of that morning was so deeply etched into his brain that, if he tried, he could reconstruct every detail of the room; the second-hand table with scratches crisscrossing the surface; the morning sun barely peaking in through the window; the glass of orange juice in his hand, condensation dripping down the side; the bowl of Frosted Flakes half-eaten and slowly turning to a sugary mush. He even remembered which comic he was reading when he finally tuned in, it had been one of those half page Calvin and Hobbes, one with Spaceman Spiff. On the opposite side of the table his old man sat reading the paper. Only he wasn’t checking out the funny pages. Instead, his father had been engrossed in one of the sections filled with long words that Linc couldn’t pronounce, much less understand.
His father’s voice had been faint at first, so much that it was barely discernible, but increased in volume with each syllable. It was as if his father’s thoughts were broadcasting on a specific frequency and Linc was slowly tuning in. The first thought that had shot through the air had been about the breakdown of peace talks in the Middle East. His father hadn’t been surprised by the fact that the peace talks had come to an unsuccessful end; then he thought some racist things about both sides involved in the talks. Initially, Linc thought his father was speaking out loud and had unwisely responded by saying ‘huh?’ Normally a ‘huh’ from Linc would have resulted in a slap across the face, just a slap if he was lucky, but his father must have been distracted, because instead of slapping Linc, he just told him to be shut his mouth and then went back to reading his paper.
Then the voice in his head wondered if Linc was some sort of idiot, just sitting there reading the comics and talking to himself. The voice, which he would come to think of over the years as ‘Father Voice’, was sick and tired of Linc acting like a fool all of the time. After a few more stray thoughts about Linc’s general lack of desirable qualities, Father Voice thankfully drifted off to other topics. Instead of Linc, Father Voice mused about the crappy economy and grumbled about the dumbass Vice President.
Despite Father Voice’s change in subject, Linc couldn’t eat another bite of his breakfast. Frosted Flakes had been his favorite kind of cereal, but after that morning, he couldn’t see that damned cartoon tiger without his stomach clenching in anxiety. The force of his father’s in his brain was too powerful, too overwhelming, for him to contain in his skull and it verged on the edge of exploding from the pressure. Linc’s own thoughts, which weren’t very assertive to begin with, felt particularly minuscule in comparison to the booming voice. Black spots filled his vision and he didn’t get away, he was going to fall forward and crack his head open on the table.
Before that could happen Linc asked to be excused and, as soon as his father agreed, he bolted for the door. Linc was worried that his father wouldn’t let him go, but he hadn’t questioned Linc’s early departure and Father Voice was glad to have some piece and quiet anyway. He couldn’t quite make it out of the room before his father called him back, in his haste Linc had forgotten to clean up his dishes. He glanced at the door, pondering how much trouble he would be in if he ignored the command, but decided nothing was worth his father’s wrath. His brain throbbing, Linc marched back the table and picked up his bowl. The thirty seconds it took to rinse out his cereal bowl and put it away had been sheer agony. The bowl drying on the counter, Linc ran straight into the bathroom and threw up his Frosted Flakes; Tony the Tiger would have been so proud.
Even though it had been twelve years, the memory of that morning was still fresh in his mind as Linc roused from a disturbed sleep. The night before he had done his best to self-medicate the memories away with alcohol, but it hadn’t been enough. It was never enough. Even when he was doubled over and retching up all that cheap booze into the gutter, he could still hear Father Voice telling him what a worthless piece of crap he was. Given his current pathetic state, how could he really argue with that conclusion? The memory was so powerful that when he stopped throwing up and opened his eyes, he half expected to find himself transported back to that bathroom with the crappy yellow wallpaper.
Linc stood up, scratched his scraggily beard, and tried to shake the memories of that morning free from the cobwebs in his mind. Despite the events of that long ago morning, the throbbing ache in his temples, and the dried vomit at the edge of his mouth, daybreak was still his favorite time of day. The voices were always at their most quiet and subdued in the early morning hours, so he could actually get around the city without feeling crushed by the weight of them. He had to act quickly, however, because by about ten in the morning the voices would be at full force and assaulting him from all directions. He needed to get moving if he wanted to get some things accomplished before then.
After stretching, he rolled up his sleeping bag and collected it with his other assorted belongings and stashed them all in a hard to reach corner of the overpass. He needn’t have bothered, in truth very little of what he owned would be worth stealing anyway: A couple of battered cook pans, three cans of peaches, a box of matches, and a smattering of other incidentals constituted most of his earthly possessions. Every thing he owned could be carried on his back or left behind at a moment’s notice. The most valuable things he owned were his portable radio and the batteries that kept it alive. His radio he never left behind, it was his only shield against the voices. He pulled the head phones over the crown of his head and turned it up as high as his ears could tolerate. It didn’t matter what he listened to, just so long as it was loud. With the radio cranked all the way up, he could almost tune the voices out. Almost.
His head phones securely on, he stepped out from the shadow of I-5 and started his trek down James Street. There was still a haze hanging over Puget Sound, but he could tell by the warmth in the air that it would burn off soon and that it would be a nice day. As he shuffled along, he wasn’t sure when his gait had evolved into a shuffle, he pretty much just woke up one day and found that he did, his headache slowly receded, but a buzzing in the back of his head was replacing it. He had never felt anything quite like the buzzing before, except maybe the static in the air that preceded a thunderstorm. As he zigzagged the mile or so to the Social Security office, the buzzing waxed and waned for no discernible reason.
Linc never walked anywhere in a straight line, he plotted out his routes to avoid as many people, and therefore vocies, as possible. Between his slow shuffle and his circuitous routes, it always took him five times longer to get someplace, as it should. Despite his laconic pace, the Social Security office doors were still locked upon his arrival. He jerked on the handle again, just to be sure, but the doors stubbornly refused to open. His watch a long lost memory, he blocked the reflection on the glass doors and tried to make out the clock on the wall inside. After changing his position a few times, as best as he could tell it was five till nine, but that was really just a guess.
“Damn.” It was only five minutes, but he didn’t like being exposed even if it was for a short amount of time. He turned around towards the street and clapped his hands together to warm them up.
As he turned he noticed a woman watching him from across the street as she walked past. She quickly looked way, so it certainly could have been just his paranoia kicking in. It was not unusual for him to feel like he was being watched, only to discover it was just his imagination. Although, having said that, it wasn’t out of the norm for him to be eyed with suspicion, especially when he was locked doors a little too conspicuously. In any case, she seemed to be moving on so it didn’t much matter. He knew he shouldn’t get worked up every time some well-dressed white woman looked at him funny. He watched her walking for another half a block before he heard the door behind him unlatch. By the time he stepped inside the building the she was forgotten.
You could tell by the style of the building’s interior that it had been constructed in the nineteen-sixties: there was tarnished bronze and dirty white marble everywhere you looked and it kind of smelled like a damp basement. He figured that the city must have been flush with money after the boom years of the fifties, because most of the civic buildings seemed to be from about that time. They all had an ornate “look at me” quality, which became all the more depressing as their glory years faded farther and farther into the past.
One notable exception to this was the downtown library. In contrast to most of the public buildings, it was all glass and steel. On a sunny day like today daylight streamed in from every angle. Early on weekday mornings, when it wasn’t too crowded, he would slip in and find a peaceful corner to while away an hour or two. A guy could really relax in a place like that and forget his troubles for an hour or two. Not like this stuffy old building, which he tried to get in and out of as quickly as possible.
Since the doors had just opened for the day he had the hallways all to himself, so much so that he could clearly hear his own thoughts, which was nice for a change. Mostly, though, he was thinking about getting his check and getting out of there. Out of habit he turned left at the first hallway and came to a stop at a familiar set of elevators. After pressing the smudged “UP” button, he heard the forty-year-old elevator car rumble towards the main floor. He rode the elevator to the fifth floor and strode toward the Social Security office. As he approached the office, he heard the mutter of voices. By the time he opened the door they had grown so loud that his brain was drowned in a pool of voices. Even though he knew it was already turned all the way up, Linc impotently thumbed at his radio’s volume buttons.
As always, he was the first in line to pick up his check. Although there was nobody in front of him, he still had to wait as the clerks prepared for their day; shuffling papers, opening and closing drawers, signing into their computers. He shifted from foot to foot and could feel sweat begin to drip down his face. He didn’t know whether it was from anxiety or from alcohol withdrawal, but it amounted to the same thing. All that mattered was getting that check and getting gone. Making matters worse, disjointed phrases swirled around: “stupid computer”, “why did he…”, “need more caffeine”.
He fought the impulse to clutch his head and scream for everybody to shut up. He knew that yelling for no reason would be a sure sign to the employees that he was mentally unstable, just in case they were still in doubt on that point. Instead he curled and uncurled his fingers manically, in a display, which was probably only slightly less deranged looking. Confirming the fact, all the voices were now noting the fact that he was acting like a lunatic. Just when it was about to become completely unbearable and he was about to run for the door, he heard a woman’s voice, “better help him and get him out of here before he kills somebody”.
“Mr. Williams, I can help you now.” He didn’t move; he didn’t at first realize that the woman was actually speaking to him and not just thinking the words. “Mr. Williams? I’m ready,” she called again, this time crisper, and he realized that all the employees were watching him, waiting for him to make a move.
“Sorry,” he said and shuffled up to the counter. He recognizes the teller, her name is Laura, and he is relieved; mostly her thoughts are nicer than the rest of the clerks. In a losing effort he did his best to keep his hands still. His disobedient fingers tapped the counter as if he were trying to send a frantic message in Morse code. Laura smiled pleasantly at him, but he caught her thinking, “what is he on today?”
“Let me just get you processed, what’s your Social Security number again?” She said and thought, “best to get him out of here before he really flips out.”
The numbers rolled off his tongue of their own accord. Every two weeks he repeated the numbers for his check so, despite his alcohol pickled brain, unlike most things he was able to recall them effortlessly. As she entered his information, the clattering of the keyboard added to the symphony of his tapping. She was so nervous she entered the wrong numbers into the computer and had to reenter them. He heard her think, “stay calm, it’s going to be okay.”
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, unable to resist. He felt badly that he was making her so anxious. She froze and looked back at him. She thought, “oh my God, he’s going to kill me.” Behind her a printer whirred into action, running off Linc’s check.
“No, of course not,” she said and uttered a high-pitched laugh.
“Never mind,” he said, seeing that he was only making it worse. He shouldn’t have said anything; it was always better to stay silent. If he didn’t talk, people just thought he was a little slow. Once he opened his mouth and proved he wasn’t they became suspicious and watched him more closely. “I think it’s done,” he added as the printer spit out the paper and went back to sleep.
She watched him a moment longer and then retrieved the check from the printer tray. “Here you go, have a nice day Mr. Williams.” She smiled tightly at him.
“Thanks,” he replied in a low, muffled tone. As he turned to walk away, he heard with perfect clarity, “Thank God he’s leaving, he’s such a weirdo.”
His head hung lower, his eyes dropped to the floor as he hurried out of the office. Outside of the building, the buzzing in his head returned and he was glad for it. From the County Building he walked to the closest bank, where he cashed his check. As he left he heard a voice say, amongst other things, that he was the worst smelling thing they had ever experienced. The man who cashed his check thought that Linc was just going to spend that money on drugs and alcohol. The man was one hundred percent correct. When he left the bank he caught the flicker of sudden movement in the corner of his eye. While his senses in general had eroded from the waves of alcohol, his self-preservation instincts were honed after years of hyper-vigilance, and he turned his head in time to see a man dart out of sight.
As with the woman earlier, it could have been nothing, his paranoia catching up to him. One of his friends, Sean, an older guy who had been around forever, had paranoid schizophrenia and was always telling Linc about the people following him. Sean heard voices, too, but his voices really were all in his head. They weren’t real, like the ones in Linc’s head…or so he told himself. Maybe he was being like Sean, seeing conspiracies where there were only coincidences. He knew he needed to calm down. He must have been working through these thoughts for a while, because the people passing him on the sidewalk were trying not to look at him, all the while thinking about nothing but him. He closed his mouth and started walking. The buzzing was back now, too, and clouded his thoughts. Instead of going towards the liquor store, however, he turned in a different direction. Maybe he was being paranoid, but he had to be sure.
He turned off of his path towards the water and the light rail station. The buzzing moved around to different parts of his head as he walked, like a swarm of bees circling a thieving bear. It had gotten to the point where the buzzing was starting to make him nauseous. At the light rail station, he moved down the stairs as quickly as his out of shape body would allow. He had moved so fast that he wheezed a little bit once he reached the bottom of the stairwell. With all the people around he ordinarily would have avoided the rail tunnel, but he was willing to make an exception in this case. A train must have just arrived because people were flowing out of the station and darting around him. He expected the voices around him to be overwhelming, but the odd thing was that the buzzing seemed to muffle them. He glanced around again for any sign that he was being followed and then trotted down the stairs. This was more exercise than he was used to and he was soon out of breath.
As he descended the stairs the buzzing lessened and the voices pressed against him. Between his shortness of breath and the voices crushing down on him, he felt like he was being smothered. He felt the need to claw his way back out to safety, but restrained the urge. Instead he darted over to a corner where he stood watching the stairwell and waited for the approach of the buzzing. Nothing came though and he doubted his decision to come down here to this prison. His fingers curled and uncurled, but he didn’t even attempt to restrain them. He couldn’t take it any longer and decided to make a run for it. He took a step towards the stairs, but stopped mid-stride and fell back against the wall.
The buzzing had returned, but not from the direction he had expected. It started at the top of his head and dripped down, like warm water in the shower. He leaned against the wall, his eyes darting around and scanning for either the man or the woman from before. He couldn’t figure out how they had slipped around him. His breath became ragged, rasping in and out like that of a cornered animal. He slid down the wall and back into the corner where he crouched down and searched the crowd. Through the buzzing, he could make out the nervous voices of the people around him as they moved away from the crazy man in the corner.
“Train arriving at the station,” a mechanical female voice announced overhead.
The buzzing had become infinitely stronger and now blocked out the thoughts of the bystanders. To his left, the elevator chimed and he realized where the buzzing was coming from. The new clarity alleviated the pressure and he was able to get to his feet. As the elevator doors opened, he shuffled to the approaching train. All of the people who had been avoiding him when he was in the corner now were climbing over one and other to make way for him. Leaping to his feet and frantically shambling to the train obviously wasn’t the best way to reassure them of his intentions.
The train slid to a stop and he reached it just as the doors slid open. As soon as he passed through the doorway, he grabbed hold of a silver stabilizer bar, his hand slipping from the sweat in his palm. He turned around to get a look at his pursuers. He could not immediately place them; they were doing too good of a job of blending in with the morning crowd. He closed his eyes and felt for the buzzing instead. Two vibrating masses were moving rapidly toward him. He angled his head towards the closer of the two, gauging its distance, and opened his eyes. At about fifteen feet, he spotted the man from earlier in the morning. The man was dressed in a suit and his face was flat; had it not been for the buzzing emanating from him, Linc never would have known he was tracking him.
Using the same technique, he looked for the woman. When he opened his eyes, Linc was surprised to see that instead of the woman it was another man. This one was dressed in running pants and a T-shirt and looked like he was outfitted to go jogging. He was staring dead at Linc, not bothering to hide his intentions. The first man made Linc nervous, the second terrified him. The morning commuters packed in tight, and pressed against him, but he managed to stay as close to the door as possible. Above the buzzing and the babbling of voices, Linc heard the mechanical woman again, this time announcing that the train was leaving the station.
Beating the doors, the man in the suit entered the train to his right and was slowly making his way towards Linc. The jogging man stepped on the train and approached him from the opposite side. At this proximity the buzzing was nearly unbearable, it felt like a swarm of fire ants was stinging his head. He wanted to turn and get a better look at jogging man, but the thought of turning his face into the buzzing was not very appealing. The mechanical woman gave her final warning and the doors started to close. He knew this was his only chance; with a burst of speed that his body should not have been capable of, Linc shoved the jogging man down and slipped out of the door. He wasn’t quite fast enough and the doors closed on his heal, tripping him. He jerked his foot free and rolled over in time to see the jogging man clawing his way back onto his feet, a look of rage on his face.
Linc watched the train speed off until it disappeared down the tunnel, before allowing himself a rare smile. He had seen that move in the movies, but couldn’t believe he had actually pulled it off. He didn’t know if it was from the adrenaline, the increased heart rate he could feel pumping in his neck, or just the thrill of victory, but he felt surprisingly good. Unfortunately, he knew it would be short-lived; it was only a matter of time before the men made their way back to the station. He needed to get clear before they could do that. Without looking where he was going, he took a step towards the stairs. He was just thinking that it was strange that he still felt the buzzing when he walked right into the woman from outside the Social Security Office.
“Good morning, Linc,” she said with a warm smile, “can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
Linc would never have expected that the trio of mysterious strangers were stalking him in order to invite him to Starbucks. He likely would have been less surprised had she sprouted wings and flown away, but he supposed this was Seattle after all so coffee worked for any occasion. Havingprepared himself to be tasered and carried off to a secret dungeon to be tortured, the polite invitation to a warm drink left him short on words. As he processed the offer he must have had a vacant look on his face because the woman gave him a sidelong glance that implied she didn’t think Linc was all there.
“Sorry,” she said, after a too-long silence, “Maybe I should have introduced myself. I’m Kate.”
She reached out to shake Linc’s hand, but he jerked away before she could touch him. This has less to do with the fact that she was likely was planning on abducting him and more to do with the fact that he was so unused to friendly physical contact that any move towards him felt like an assault. Rather than look put out, she deftly kept her hand going and scratched her cheek; her change of course was so smooth that he almost thought she had intended to scratch an itch all along. There was another long pause and he knew he should say something, anything, to keep from looking like he had lobotomized himself with alcohol, but the buzzing was so strong that he just couldn’t manage a coherent reply. Still he had to get something out.
“Buzzing,” he said. It certainly wasn’t the worst thing he could have said, but it didn’t do much to dispel the idea that there was something wrong with him.
“Excuse me?” She gave him a bewildered look. His attempt at conversation did not appear to have improved the situation and, in fact, it might have made it worse. Before he could have been taken for a mysterious brooder, now he was a monosyllabic drooler. Still, he decided to give it another shot.
“The buzzing that’s coming from you,” better this time, at least he had strung some words together, “it’s making it hard for me to concentrate.”
“The buzzing? That’s strange,” she said, but reached up to her ear, to a cell phone earpiece that he hadn’t noticed before.
As soon as she started playing with the device the buzzing dropped in intensity. Instead of feeling like wasps attacking his head, it was more like sitting in one of those massage chairs in the store in the mall: almost a pleasant experience, but you still feel a little battered afterwards. He had managed to sit in one of those massager chairs only once. He had slipped into one of those stores in the mall, the kind that sells both remote controlled helicopters and humidifiers shaped like R2-D2, he thought unnoticed, and plopped down in one of the black leather massage chairs. It had been a few minutes of heaven before the security guard came and escorted him out of the store.
“Is that better?” she asked.
“Yup,” he said, remembering that this Kate woman and her friends had been following him all morning and deciding the less he said the better.
“Good, now how about that coffee?” her face had returned to the friendly, impassive mask. He couldn’t reconcile her outwardly pleasant experience and the creepy vibe she and her friends put off.
“Why are you following me?” he asked, unable to stand the ambiguity any longer.
“I’ll explain everything over coffee, I promise. All you need to know is that I’m here to help you. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can walk away and I won’t bother you anymore.”
Somehow he doubted that it would be that easy for him to get away; while Kate may have had the best intentions, or at least was good at hiding her bad ones, jogging man didn’t seem like he was coming to offer a chat over a hot cup of Joe. Nevertheless, he decided to take her up on her offer. At the least he might be able to find out a little bit about the trio of pursuers.
“Alright, where you want to go?” he muttered and followed her up the stairs.
“Sorry about the way that we approached you,” Kate said once they were back outside, “sometimes my colleagues can be a little…enthusiastic.”
“Don’t sweat it,” he said, looking around for her ‘colleagues’, “I don’t scare easy.”
Despite his attempts to appear calm, he was barely holding it together. He was trying to figure out who these people could be and the one clear answer that came to mind was the government. His father was always ranting about the government when he was a kid and that, combined with Linc’s own less than positive experiences with government agencies, established a life long distrust of anybody in authority. Plus, who else could have those buzzy earpieces that blocked out the thoughts? It had to be either the government or maybe some big corporation? His father would have said they all amounted to the same thing, which Linc guessed was probably true. Either way, it probably wasn’t a good thing that they were following him.
In the end, it didn’t really matter, what mattered was how they had found him. It was obvious that somehow they knew about his ability to hear voices. That was the only reason they would have the earpieces. He always did his best to lay low, not show off the fact that he could hear thoughts, and mostly he went to the opposite end of the spectrum and played stupid. It didn’t take much effort; people assumed a big, unshaven, homeless guy couldn’t be too smart, if they bothered thinking about him at all. Regular folks preferred to not have to think about homeless people and Linc did his best to keep it that way.
“Where do you want to go for coffee?” she asked as she looked down the street. He couldn’t tell if she was looking for a place to get a drink or watching out for her friends.
“Doesn’t matter to me, you’re the boss,” he replied. After her rebuff of his question, he had decided to withdraw back into his shell.
“I think there’s a coffee shop around the corner,” she said, apparently unfazed by his attitude.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said with a slight smirk. He knew this area well enough to say that there was indeed a coffee shop a block over, but he wasn’t about to volunteer that information.
Kate tried to make small talk on the way there, but he continued to give one or two word responses until she eventually gave up. For the rest of the way they walked in silence, which was only interrupted by her utterance of excitement at finding the place. Once inside he stayed close to her. Not only was she a talisman protecting him from eviction from the coffee shop, but also the buzzing she emitted protected him from the accusatory voices swirling around him. He was aware that he shouldn’t be terribly concerned about the comfort of somebody whose motives were dubious at best, but he worried that his proximity to her would make her uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to notice so it turned out that he shouldn’t have worried about offending her.
“What do you want to drink?” she asked as they approached the counter.
“Nothing, I’m good.” The array of drinks on the menu baffled and frightened him, they belonged to a class of people who could afford to spend four bucks on a cup of coffee, a club so far removed from his lifestyle that it might as well have been a thousand dollars a cup
“Come on, you have to let me buy you a drink, you agreed earlier.”
“Uh,” he hesitated. The truth was that he had only been inside of coffee shops in hopes,
mostly unsuccessfully, of using their restrooms. When confronted by Kate’s offer, he was put on the spot and forced once again to acknowledge his outsider status. “Just water.” he said finally.
“Are you sure you don’t want something else?” They were now at the front of the line and he could feel the eyes of the other customers on him. Thankfully, the buzzing was still keeping the voices at bay; otherwise he probably would have panicked. Her questions felt like a cross examination in court and, combined with the packed interior of the shop, pushed him to the edge of sprinting for the door. The only thing holding his feet in place was that his curiosity slightly outweighed his instinct to flee, but the balance was heading towards the tipping point of escape.
“Nope, I’m good,” he said, feeling increasingly uncomfortable by the moment.
“Okay, if you’re sure,” she said and he thought he heard her sigh. She put in the order, bottled water for him and something fancy for her that he didn’t entirely understand.
“Can we sit outside?” he asked, curling and uncurling his fingers.
“Sure, do you want to wait outside for me?”
“That’s okay, I’ll wait.” The inside of the shop was making him squirm, but he didn’t want to get far from the protective bubble created by Kate’s buzzing head.
By the time their drinks came and they were sitting outside, the morning chill had dissipated and the air was warming up. Kate took a sip, but he just held his unopened bottle, the green logo rotating back and forth as he rolled it between his hands. The constant rolling motion soothed his nerves. Kind of. They didn’t speak at first and he felt like this was some sort of test, to see how desperate he was for knowledge. But he didn’t care if this was a test, this had already been drawn out long enough and he couldn’t take it any more.
“How did you find me?” He asked again.
“I promise to tell you everything you want to know, but let me tell you about yourself first. I think that will answer most of your questions,” she said and then took what seemed to be a deliberately slow drink from her cup.
“About me?” He wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but it put him on edge. Still, he wanted information, so he needed to play along a little longer. He pondered what she could be about to say, before saying, “Alright.”
“Are you sure? You don’t seem convinced.” He couldn’t tell if she was enjoying this or not.
“No, yeah, go ahead,” he replied and looked down at the table.
“Here goes. You were an ordinary child until you were nine or ten years old. You were brighter than average, good in school. You were maybe a little lonely, but had friends. Then one day, somewhere around your tenth birthday, the voices started. They weren’t powerful at first, more like the radio when it is turned way down.” Without realizing it, he had dropped the bottle and was clenching and unclenching his hands again. “The voices might not have even been noticeable at first unless you were lying quietly in bed. All of a sudden, the voices became too loud to ignore, they turned way up, so much that they seemed to come out of nowhere. Any of this sounding familiar so far?”
Linc didn’t respond, he just continued to look at the table. This was all sounding a little too familiar, how could she know this much? Even if she had looked into his background, she couldn’t have known how the voices came on, until she described it to him he had barely remembered himself. His father’s voice had been so forceful that morning; it had loomed large in his imagination and wiped away the memories of the earlier whispers. This woman who knew more about him than he knew himself.
“Should I go on?” she asked. If she noticed his increasing disquiet, she made no sign, instead she seemed to take his silence as an indication to continue. “Soon you couldn’t stand to be around people, you skipped school, your grades slipped, started getting in fights…”
As Kate continued the memories came rushing back. These were memories that, along with the voices themselves, he had tried to drown away in alcohol and drugs. The unspoken criticism from classmates and teachers alike, the roar of thoughts in the classroom crushing him on a daily basis, the lashing out in self-defense all bubbled up to the surface. These memories were bad enough, but worse ones were fast approaching.
“Trouble with the law followed soon,” she continued, “because of your bursts of violence, your mental state was evaluated for the first time. All the signs of schizophrenia were present, the paranoia, the voices, the fidgeting…” She eyed his hands, which had been in perpetual motion during her entire monologue. “Based on the evaluation, you were admitted to a mental hospital.” Linc’s hands balled into fists and he slammed them down on the table and nearly toppling it over. Kate caught her drink in time to keep it from spilling everywhere, but his water bottle flipped onto the sidewalk and rolled away, never to be seen again. The table made such a racket that everybody within a twenty foot radius stopped and looked before going on with their lives.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
“Should I continue?” she asked.
“No,” he said, watching the traffic on the street. He didn’t like having his life story recounted so casually. The memories she had stirred up were far too painful for that.
“Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not ‘okay’,” he said, his face getting hot. “Who the hell are you and how do you know all of this about me? How long have you been spying on me?” Afraid what his anger might cause his hands to do; he gripped the edge of the table that had been mass-produced to look unique. Also, if he didn’t like Kate’s answers, he would overturn the table and run away.
“If you’ll calm down a second,” she said, her voice flat and measured, but he could see the anxiety in her eyes, “I’ll tell you everything.”
“I am calm,” he replied, feeling anything but. She glanced down at his hands and he let go of the table and placed them in his lap.
“That’s better. To answer your question, I work for a biotech company called Genetitech. We do research on our own, we contributed heavily to mapping the human genome, but a big part of our business is contracting for the government contracts out with us to research into genetic variations.” Her voice had taken on a new rhythm, less spontaneous. He could tell that she had said these exact words many times before, because they sounded practiced.
“What kind of contracts?” This was worse than he thought; it was the government and a big corporation. He could hear his father’s voice in the back of his mind shouting at Linc to get the hell out of there, but something was keeping him glued to the green aluminum chair.
She hesitated and then said, “Looking into genetic variations.”
“Genetic variations? Like mutations?”
“Mutations would be one way of putting it, but mutation has such a pejorative…”
“Don’t dress it up, say what you mean,” he said, his father’s words coming out of his mouth. He had heard the old man use, and think, these exact words many times. His father had little patience for people who hid behind fancy words. The old man had felt that people used those types of words to show that they were better educated and smarter, than him. Linc had never been able to tell his father how wrong he was, nobody cared enough about him to bother showing off how smart they were. If his father had known how little people actually thought about him, it would have killed him years before the clogged artery that finally got him.
“Okay, mutation, if you’d rather. The exact term is immaterial, so long as we both know what we’re talking about.”
“So you’re saying I’m a mutant?”
“Again, that’s not the term…” She was getting flustered, but he didn’t really care too much about that.
“Like an X-Man? Like the bald guy in the wheelchair who can read minds?”
Her answer made Linc smile. He knew who Professor Xavier was; he just wanted to see if she did as well. Somehow, it made her a little less scary to know that she had seen X-Men, like she was a real human being and not a robot. Normally, he would be able to tell who was out to get him right away. It was more work finding out what he needed to know when he couldn’t read her thoughts, but he was getting the hang of it.
“Yes, you could be something like a superhero, if you come with me,” she said, seizing on his momentary burst of enthusiasm. “We can teach you to refine your skills, use them for the greater good. If you can control your ability, you could also shut the voices out when you didn’t want them, lead a normal life.”
“Whoa, before you get all Yoda on me, how did you know about me, how did you find me?”
“You remember that story I told you earlier?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“It’s actually not about you, it’s about a girl named Moira and it has a different ending than yours. While the psychiatrists in your case diagnosed you with schizophrenia, loaded you up with anti-psychotics and moved on, Moira was luckier. Her doctor recognized that there was something else going on, that the voices she heard could not be explained away by psychosis.”
“I’m not the only one like this?” He had daydreamed about meeting another person who could hear thoughts like he could, but never thought it would actually happen. He wondered what it would be like, if their thoughts would sound different, if he would be able to hear their thoughts at all.
“Including you, we’ve located three so far. Moira’s doctor brought her case to the government’s attention, and they brought her to us. We’ve been working with her to develop her gift. In turn, she helped us to develop these earpieces.” She tapped the black plastic attached to her ear. “She also helped us find you.”
“Two others.” He still couldn’t believe that he wasn’t the only one. For the first time since he first started hearing voices there was a chance that he might not have to be alone.
“At least two others. We believe there are more out there and we intend to find them.” Kate leaned back and smiled.
“She found me? How?”
“Moira can sense others. She says they feel different, like they have an electrical spark. She could explain it far better than I can, if you’d like to meet her in person. Or better yet, you could feel it yourself. You just have to come with me to our headquarters.”
“And what if I don’t want to come with you?”
The thought of meeting Moira was enticing, if she was actually real. It all seemed a little too easy, a woman appears and tells him everything he wants to hear; there are others like him, they can help him have a normal life, everything is puppy dogs and chocolates, and he should trust her. Every bit of his rational brain was telling him to get the hell out of there, to put distance between him and Kate. Maybe even leave the city for a while. But it wasn’t his rational brain that was keeping him from walking away, the emotional part of his brain told him that he would do anything for the chance to be normal.
“You don’t have to come with me, or do anything you don’t want to. If you walk away right now, we’ll move on and look for the next person. If you do decide to come with me to Genetitech, you’ll be free to depart at any time. We won’t restrict your movements.”
“I walk away, you just forget I exist?”
“That’s correct. I know that you’ve had problems with restrictions in the past and this won’t be anything like that.”
He wasn’t sure if her referencing his time locked up was reassuring or not. That wasn’t the only reason he had difficulty trusting her. Somehow, he couldn’t believe they would have expended this much energy to let him disappear again. And if he decided to turn her down, that’s just what he might have to do, leave Seattle and never come back, hide out someplace they couldn’t find him. Someplace warm maybe.
“You do one thing for me and I’ll consider it.”
“Sure, within reason.” For the first time she seemed cautious, which made him feel a little better. He didn’t like her having all the control, which she had since the moment they met. The buzzer in her ear crushed any small advantage he might have had over her.
“Turn off your buzzer a minute,” he said, his face flat, trying not to betray the elation he felt at having bested her.
“My buzzer?” She looked genuinely confused, but she quickly composed herself. “Oh, you mean my disrupter?” He could tell she was trying to play for time, but he wasn’t going to let her put him off.
“Buzzer, disrupter, whatever you want to call it. I want it off for one minute.” She might have thought he was bluffing, but he was going to hold firm on this request.
“I’m not really…”
“I don’t normally sit down for coffee with strangers who’ve been following me around without me knowing it.” He could tell she knew she was caught, but still didn’t want to give in. “This right here is a deal breaker.”
“A deal breaker, huh?”
“Yup,” he said.
Kate sipped her fancy coffee while she considered his request. He couldn’t read her expression, but he wasn’t sure if that was because of her poker face, or just his lack of ability. He had relied on hearing voices so much to tell him what people were feeling and thinking that he had not had to learn to study faces. It was as if he had suddenly gone deaf and blind at the same time and was groping around with his hands. She set her coffee down on the table and they sat in silence. Kate shifted in her chair as if to stand up. Linc felt a jolt of panic, be had played his hand too hard and she was going to walk away and with her his answers. He was just about to beg her to stay when she spoke.
“Okay, but just this one time, and you can never tell anybody I did this. I could lose my job,” she said.
She coughed into her hand and glanced around with a sly look, seeming to check if she was being watched. Apparently convinced that she was safe, she reached up to her ear. Linc felt a crackle in his head, but nothing changed. His head was as clear as it was before she turned off the disruptor that he wildly thought that he was cured. To his surprise, the idea of losing the voices terrified him. And then with a whoosh, the voices came back all at once and in full force, jolting him to the side.
His arms shot out, groping at the table as he tried to right himself. Instead, he toppled to his left side, his arms tangled together while he clung to the edge of the table. Kate jumped to her feet, reaching out to help him, but he held up a hand as he corrected his balance. Once again, the chattering voices surrounded him, wondering what the crazy homeless guy was up to. But the mean thoughts, the strange looks, didn’t matter to him right now; all that he cared about was getting hold of Kate’s thoughts.
He had never tried to isolate one stream of thoughts, more often he was trying to get farther away from the voices, so this was a stretch. Without really knowing why, he pictured a tunnel between them, physically blocking out all the other voices. Maybe it was his imagination, maybe it was only because they were sitting so close together, but the volume of her thoughts appeared to be amplified. And the thoughts were coming in clearly.
“Hope he believes…that I’m trying to help,” her thoughts seemed to shout at him across the table, “Maybe the only shot at convincing him that we’re not out to get him. Well? What do you think? Can I turn it back on?”
“Well? What do you think? Can I turn it back on?” she asked, the words repeating right after she thought them. Her words took on an odd, echoey quality, like when somebody calls into a radio station and forgets to turn their own radio down. “He’s not listening to me. Linc?”
“Hold on a minute,” he replied, when he realized she actually was talking to him.
“This is weird…wish he would finish,” her thoughts continued, “Not sure…how to prove I mean him…no harm. Your minute’s up. I’m going to turn it on again.”
“Your minute’s up. I’m going to turn it on again,” she said and reached up to her ear. This was the last thing he heard before the buzzing returned. While it was discomforting not being able to hear the voices around him, it was a relief to be in the company of only his own thoughts.
“I don’t like that, it’s like the feeling of somebody watching you change clothes. But worse,” she said.
“You could feel me listening?” It had never occurred to him that while he was hearing others, they might be able to feel it. Maybe that was part of why he made other people feel uncomfortable, besides the creepy talking to himself homeless guy vibe he put out there.
“No, but just knowing you were listening made me feel self conscious. It’s uncomfortable.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel weird,” he said and then looked away.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, but she was clearly still feeling uneasy about him listening in on her thoughts.
This was a new experience for Linc, he realized nobody had ever knowingly allowed him to hear their thoughts. He could see how it could make you feel out of control of your own secrets. For most people, their thoughts had no life outside their skull, all safe and secure inside that protective shell. But he knew the opposite to be true, the most private feelings were broadcast in all directions, and were easy pickings. All you needed to possesses was the right receiver. If all you had was a buzzing piece of plastic as your armor it would be a terrifying realization. He wondered if his father had suspected this truth and that’s why he had distanced himself from Linc, or if it were really just that he was afraid that the mental illness wouldn’t wash off.
“Did you get what you needed?” she asked, regaining her composure. “Will you come with me?”
This was a difficult question for Linc and he wished she had spent more time feeling ill at ease so that she wouldn’t ask it. He wanted, needed really, to trust her. All the alcohol and drugs he had taken in his life had ensconced him in a warm cocoon of inebriation, but they had taken their toll on his mind and body. He knew he must look ten years older than he actually was, and he felt fifty years older than that. This path would lead him to an early, lonely death on some cold winter night, and the worst part was that this scenario was starting to sound appealing. But, while his heart was calling out for him to give in and let her lead him by the hand, twenty plus years of learned behavior wouldn’t allow it. Trust was not a sentiment that he stocked in ample supply. The few people he had ever trusted had betrayed him to one degree or another.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” he said, getting to his feet.
“Wait, what?” She jumped to her feet as well and was making her way around the table. Before Linc could turn to go, her hand was on his forearm. He tried to pull away, but her grip was surprisingly firm. He probably could have broken free with enough force, but he could feel the eyes of all the customers in the shop on them. He knew they all probably had 911 pre-dialed and were ready to press send if he appeared too aggressive. “Did I do or…think something wrong?”
“No, you were alright. I just…can’t.”
“Then what’s the problem? Why won’t you let me help you?”
“Look, you seem nice and all, but this just ain’t right for me.” He twisted his arm and pulled free as gently as possible.
“If you’re not going to come with me, will you at least take my card?”
“Um…I don’t know,” he said. He didn’t really want to take her card, taking anything from her implied some sort of obligation.
“Listen, you don’t have to call me. You can even throw it away as soon as you’re around the corner. Just take it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I can do that.” At this point, he would have agreed to almost anything to get himself out of there. He had barely even finished the sentence when she flicked open a silver container that looked like an old fashioned cigarette case and pressed a little white card into his hand. Without even glancing at it, he crumpled the business card and jammed it into his coat pocket.
“You can call me at the number on there at any time. I’ll answer.” She had the most sincere look on her face and he wished he could hear what she was thinking, although he felt sure that she was being straight with him. He wanted to change his mind and agree to go with her.
“Yeah, whatever you say,” he said instead and turned away. As he shuffled away, he curled his fingers around the card in his pocket. The rigid edges dug into his skin and gave him a paper cut.
Linc rubbed his lips with the back of his hand and discovered they were numb. This was not unusual, it happened most times that he, like right now, had drunk too much, but it never ceased to amuse him. He slid his hand across his mouth three more times just for the novelty of it. The throbbing headache and nausea, on the other hand, he could do without. He took another sip from the brown paper wrapped bottle in hopes of reducing his symptoms, or at least make it so that he forgot about them.
Since walking away from Kate a week before, Linc had spent his time in a constant state of inebriation. At least he thought it had been a week, he couldn’t be sure. Each time he sobered up enough to think about the opportunity he had passed up, Linc took a deep gulp of brown liquid. The moments of clarity had been few and far between. He wasn’t even sure when he had last eaten.
During that time, as far as he could tell, he had also managed to spend a hefty chunk of his disability check. He tended to be free with his cash when he had been drinking and had likely sponsored the alcohol-fueled stupor of more than one of his colleagues from the underpass. When he ran out of cash, the comedown would be hard. He’d have to hustle for change near the on ramp in order to scrounge enough money to survive until his next check.
Linc lay on his left side on the cold concrete and realized how much his shoulder ached from not moving for who knew how long. He rolled onto his other shoulder and found that the right one ached just as much. He considered staying there and waiting for the fog of intoxication to overtake him but even in his current state, he couldn’t overcome his discomfort. No, the only thing for him to do was to get moving.
Linc knew he needed to stand up, he’d even settle for kneeling at this point, and put one foot in front of the other. Knowing it and doing it, however, were two completely different propositions. He pushed off the ground, but gravity and his alcohol soaked body conspired against him. Sighing, he let his body go limp; it was a sad state of affairs when he couldn’t even get up. Embarrassed by his own decrepitude, he looked around for something to climb up. Rolling back onto his other side, he came face to face with a concrete support column.
He contemplated just surrendering and hitting the bottle again, but this wasn’t a workable solution. The bottle was far too close to empty. Since his first option was out of the question, he instead psyched himself up to get moving. In a series of uncoordinated movements, he shifted over to the support column, grasped the cement, and pulled himself up onto one knee. With this small victory secured he stopped to catch his breath and wipe the fresh sweat from his brow. Once he was rested from his exertion he slowly scaled the column until he was able to get his feet underneath him. Making sure to retrieve the remnants of his vodka first, and with no real destination in mind, he shuffled out into the daylight. As he stepped into the light he slipped his headphones on and made sure his radio was at full volume.
He wandered around for about an hour, chugging from his bottle that was nominally concealed inside a brown paper bag, and endured the thoughts and the hostile looks as a penance for his behavior over the last few days. His feet took him to the touristy area, near Pike Place Market, which should be good and painful. The closer he got to the market, the more crowded it became, the more powerful the voices grew. They jabbered and competed for space inside of his brain where they enflamed the soft tissue and pressed it against the hard shell of his skull. His head throbbed so much from the stress that his shuffle turned into a stumble and he lurched forward. As he lost his balance, Linc reached out for anything to stabilize himself and found and his arms involuntarily wrapped around a female tourist.
“Oh my God, get it off me!” the woman understandably shrieked.
From his right, he sensed a half-formed image of impending violence. He braced himself for the inevitable assault from the woman’s companion, but when the blow fell, the punch to the side of his head still caught him off guard. Lightning crashed across his vision as the man’s fist connected with a meaty thump. Linc’s arms splayed open and the woman escaped his grasp. Another vision of violence, this one more fully realized, flashed in Linc’s head and he knew the man was going to kick him a split second before he felt his ribs crack beneath the man’s boot. Regaining his feet as quickly as possible in his state, Linc stumbled away through the crowd. The man yelled obscenities at him as he fled the scene, his face rapidly swelling and his side aching. By the time he had made it four blocks his right eye had swollen nearly shut. He ran his tongue over the teeth on the right side of his mouth, taking inventory. To his relief they were all still there, although perhaps a bit looser. In a more distressing development, he discovered that in the tussle he had lost his radio. Without it he felt even more naked and defenseless than normal.
He shuffled for a few more blocks before coming to a stop outside a clothing store for skinny rich kids. The inside of the store looked dark and the reek of cologne billowed into the streets. In the window display were three anorexic, headless mannequins contorted into positions that suggested the trio were just hanging out. He reached out with his hand, almost touching the glass, but not daring to make contact. Despite the commercialism and the posed nature of the scene, something about it made him ache. The mannequins had been set up at an angle that suggested a familiarity absent not only from Linc’s life now, but also from his childhood memories. The family of mannequins was the warm center around which the world revolved, and Linc was a distant frozen planet, destined to be alone.
As if he were already not feeling bad enough, the sun moved from behind a cloud and he saw himself reflected in the store glass. His face was unshaven, his hair an unruly tangle, and the side of his face looked like a hamburger patty that had been left out for three days and rotted. Somehow, through the events earlier, he had managed to cling to his bottle of vodka and it still dangled from his hand. He let it slip from his fingers and it smashed on the pavement. In comparison to the mannequins he felt like Frankenstein’s monster, a lonely freak, shunned by society which he had shunned right back. It turned out that it was damned lonely being the monster.
Right then and there, looking in the window of a crappy retail store, something clicked in his mind. The other guys said the moment when you hit rock bottom came out of nowhere and you would realize that you either had to change your ways or you would die. Of course, those guys were a bunch of drunks, so what did they know about sobering up? Still, this felt like that moment for Linc, he knew he couldn’t go on like this, he needed to stop. But to do that he knew he needed help.
He thanked God, or whoever, for Kate; even if he wasn’t sure he could trust her, she and her offer of assistance felt like a life preserver floating just within reach. He jammed his hand into his pocket to retrieve her business card. He hadn’t looked at it since she had given it to him, but now he couldn’t wait to lay his eyes on it. His hand moved around, seeking out the crisp edges, but instead found only a screw top for a bottle and a crumpled liquor store receipt. He stuck his left hand in his other jacket pocket, starting to panic now. Kate felt like his only hope and he had carelessly lost his only connection to her.
He swore to himself, angry that he had been so stupid. The he remembered the inside pocket of his jack and a drunken memory surfaced in his mind of having moved the business card there to keep it safe. He wasn’t sure if this was a real memory or if it was just wishful thinking and with some trepidation he reached one shaking hand inside his jacket. A torn fingernail caught on the fabric of his jacket, preventing him from reaching into the pocket. He jerked his hand forward and pain shot through his finger as the nail tore loose. He was so intent on retrieving the card that he barely noticed. When his fingers clasped around the card he breathed a sigh of relief, but he still wouldn’t believe it until he saw it. Once the card was in the palm of his hand where he could inspect it, he truly felt the tension bleed from his shoulders.
The card had been a crisp white when Kate handed it to him, but now it was crumpled and soiled. A smudge of dirt partially obscured her last name, “Lockwood”, which was printed in big, bold letters. He attempted to wipe away the dirt with his thumb, but instead made it worse, leaving a streak of blood across the paper. Below her name were an address on Eastlake Avenue and a phone number. Linc looked around, not really expecting to find a pay phone, but hoping for one nonetheless. As expected, there were none to be found.
The address was probably only a few miles away, but he wasn’t exactly feeling up to a morning jaunt. He contemplated finding a warm place to sleep off the alcohol and the beating, but he didn’t trust himself to not get derailed by the splitting headache he was sure to wake up to. So instead he started walking in the direction of Lake Union. He shuffled along for two blocks, voices vibrating inside his already swollen brain, before doubling over, bracing his hand against the wall and vomiting out a quarter bottle’s worth of cheap liquor.
When he was done, he wiped his mouth and looked up to find that he was directly outside of a busy restaurant. All the diners were trying not to watch, but not doing a good job of it. He managed a weak smile before heading on his way. He continued on, stopping to spit up every hundred yards or so, his eyelids growing heavier with each step. Normally he would have passed out by now and would be sleeping it off in some dark corner, but he wasn’t about to stop before he reached his destination. After a few more blocks, he was relieved to see the shiny lime green exterior of the South Lake Union Streetcar. Without paying, he slipped onto the car just before it started moving. Without a ticket the worst they could do was throw him off the streetcar and then he’d be in the same situation.
The other passengers gave him a wide birth, which suited him just fine. He sat at the far end of one of the cars and pretty much had that end to himself. His eyes drooped heavily, but he didn’t sleep; he was working too hard keeping his jaws clamped shut so no more vomit could escape. Despite the beating his dignity had already taken, Linc could not handle throwing up on public transportation. Somehow that felt like it would be a new low.
His nausea wasn’t helped by the voices swirling around him. The tin can shell of the streetcar seemed to have some effect on them, amplifying them and giving them a discordant quality. A voice would sound in his head, quickly followed by its echo, reflected off the frame of the car. The distortions made his head feel twice as full as it normally would for the amount of people nearby. It would figure that he would lose his headphones right when he really needed them the most. By the time they reached his stop, he was leaning forward, holding his head in his hands and groaning. This behavior certainly did not endear him to his fellow passengers, who had moved farther and farther away as the ride progressed. Of course, the ground beef that was the right side of his face surely had crushed any hope of blending in.
As the streetcar pulled to a stop, the female voice told him that Fairview Avenue would be on the right side. When he rose to his feet he heard the rest of the people in the car thank God almost in unison. Normally this would have bothered him, but today he was too focused on his goal to worry about it. That, and the combined odors of alcohol and vomit were bothering even him, so he really couldn’t blame them. He held onto a chrome handle bar, leaned his head against the window for support, and waited for the doors to open. The feeling of cold, hard glass against his forehead felt oddly comforting.
The doors hissed open and he was on his way again. When they closed behind him the voices inside the streetcar were muffled, not gone, but muted. It seemed that some combination of materials and the shape of the car worked as a buffer for the voices. He had never ridden the streetcar and so had never experience this effect before. The similarly designed light rail cars must have been made out of a different material, because he hadn’t noticed it there either. He wondered if the buzzers Kate and her associates had worn worked on the same type of principle. Maybe when he made it to her office she would explain to him how they worked.
He checked the address on the dirt and blood smudged business card and decided that he was pretty close to his destination. He walked north at first, but the numbers were going in the wrong direction, so he doubled back on his path. After ten minutes of walking and checking addresses he thought he had found the right place. A large building, it spanned an entire block. The exterior had a modern feel that fit with the overall aesthetic of the revitalized neighborhood. Over the entryway, the word “Genetitech” stood in brushed aluminum letters. He licked his lips, which were dry and cracked, before walking toward what looked to be the main entrance.
As he approached the shiny glass doors, the buzzing returned, subtle at first but growing more intense the closer he got to the building. He noticed that while the doors were glass, they must have been tinted because he couldn’t quite make out the interior, which made him a little nervous. Next to the doorway was a glowing green button that he supposed was the doorbell, but it had to be the most high tech doorbell he’d ever seen. He let his hand hover over the button and then let it drop back down to his side. Even though the buzzing told him this had to be the place, he checked the address one last time before finally pressing the button. There was no noise in response, but before he pulled his finger away, a video display appeared in the glass.
“May I help you?” A tiny woman asked from the display.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, lost for words now that the moment arrived, “I’m here to, uh, see, uh, Kate Lockwood.” He was embarrassed by his stammer and by how dumb he was likely appearing to the woman.
“And who may I say is here to see her?” He thought she sounded suspicious, but it was hard to tell through the little screen.
“Uh,” he stammered again, now thrown off even more by the woman’s officious tone, “Linc. My name is Linc.”
“Will she know what this is regarding?” He was starting to have second thoughts about this. The long walk had sobered him up and his courage was now quickly evaporating.
“Yeah. Yeah, she’ll know.” He didn’t know if everybody who worked here knew about the voices, but he sure didn’t want to say, “it’s about the voices in my head,” to the condescending woman.
“I’ll let her know you’re here,” she said, but what her tone told him that it wouldn’t be on the top of her priority list. The display clicked off, leaving him alone with his anxieties.
He shifted from side to side, as he grew more agitated with the passing seconds. For the first time in years, maybe ever, he regretted not owning a watch, as there was no way to know how much time had elapsed. He kept expecting the video display to click back on and the woman reappearing to tell him Kate was too busy to see him. Right now he didn’t now if he would be relieved or disappointed by that response. Perhaps, he thought, since he had seen her she had changed her mind and didn’t want to help him. Maybe he had not seemed grateful enough for the opportunity.
He wrenched his hands together, rubbing them raw. He became so intent on the place where the screen had been on the glass moments before that he didn’t notice the approaching figures. When he did notice them, they were nearly at the door. He could only see their outlines through the darkened glass, but he thought that one of them might be Kate. Linc heard a click from inside the double doors and they swung open.
“Linc, I’m glad you could…What happened? You look terrible.” She reached out to touch his battered face but he pulled away. He must have moved too quickly, because the receptionist looked like she was going to make a run for it.
“Nothing. I’m alright, ” he said, but he realized that wasn’t true at all. His face and his side where throbbing, he cold barely open his eye, and to top it off the world was spinning around him.
“Let’s get you inside.” Kate turned to go back into the building, but Linc hesitated.
“I, uh…” Linc didn’t know what to say, he was deeply ambivalent about stepping through the doors. He believed Kate could help him, wanted to help him, but going inside felt like a trap. If he followed her, he wasn’t sure they would let him go easily.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know about going in there,” he said, “I like being outside.”
“Do you need to take more time to think about this?”
Linc wanted to say yes and to walk away, but he looked up at the receptionist. She was watching him, a strained look on her face. He could tell that she was hoping he would accept the offer and would just walk away and leave them in piece. Then he thought back to earlier that morning, to his reflection in the glass. The surprise wasn’t that the receptionist was afraid of him, but that Kate wasn’t. I struck him once more that Kate was his only hope and that if he didn’t follow her inside right now he might just drink himself to death that night. If he was going to die on the street, what was the worst they could do to him inside? A voice in the back of his mind, his own for a change, told him that it could think of a lot of things worse than death.
“No, I’m alright,” he said and followed her though the doors, choosing to ignore the voice.
Linc had felt the buzzing from outside of the building, but still wasn’t prepared for the intensity once inside. When he had experienced it before, like when he had first met Kate, it had been intense, but confined to his head. Inside of the Genetitech building, however, his whole body was prickling. It was if every square inch of his body was covered in angry bees. Before he could take three steps, he toppled forward onto his knees. The world swirled around him and his chest tightened up. He tried to get back to his feet, but instead he leaned forward and vomited all over the floor. Kate tried to catch him, but still he fell forward and cracked his head on the tile floor. Before he slipped from consciousness, he had time to think, “the receptionist really isn’t going to like me now”. Then everything faded to black.
Linc could feel his pulse in both temples and every time his heart beat his head ached. The inside of his mouth was dry and tasted like a pair of socks that hadn’t been changed in a month. He licked his lips, but didn’t have enough spit to moisten them. He tried to reach his hand to his mouth to wipe away the dried spittle, but his arm wouldn’t move. The same thing happened when he tried to move his left arm. Jerking both arms around, he found they were fastened down. A searing light blinded him when he tried to open his eyes.
As he twisted and turned and tried to free himself his panic level rose. His efforts were futile, however, as he found all of his extremities were strapped down. This didn’t keep him from trying, he was beyond thinking rationally now, he just had to free himself. The last thing he remembered was following Kate into Genetitech and passing out. Now he was strapped down to a table or gurney of some sort and living his worst nightmare. All he could think was that she had betrayed him; everything she said about helping him had been a lie. As he struggled, he heard a mechanical voice say, “Code Green, Isolation Room” repeatedly.
He blinked rapidly and let his eyes adjust to the light so that he could examine his surroundings. When he tried to turn his head, however, he found that it was also restrained, so all he could see was the ceiling and the upper walls. The room was all white and, combined with the blazing lights, there probably wasn’t a shadow to be found. All the fixtures, including the sprinklers were recessed. He knew from experience that this was to keep somebody from hanging themselves. IV lines snake away from his arms up to dangling bags of clear liquids. On the far wall, he could see the top of a door and what looked like a one-way mirror. While he was looking in that direction, the door opened and the top of three heads bobbed into the room. One of them looked like it might be Kate’s head, but he couldn’t be sure. As they came more into view, he could see that the other two of them were big, burly men. Almost as soon as they came into view they were holding him down.
“Sedate him!” One of them yelled.
The other man pulled out a syringe with a very large needle attached. If he wasn’t there already, the sight of the needle would have pushed Linc over the edge. As the man stuck the needle into a vial of opaque liquid, Linc went into overdrive, straining every muscle against the straps. The man with the syringe drew out the liquid and was about to stick it into an IV line that Linc could now see was inserted into his arm when he heard Kate’s voice yell, “Stop!”
The two roughnecks paused and mulled whether or not they should listen to her. At Kate’s cry, Linc had also frozen in his efforts to escape, as if her command to stop had been directed at him. He didn’t know if his newfound compliance tipped the scales, but the one on top of him nodded to the guy with the syringe and he backed off. When he stepped away Kate appeared in his place. The guy on his chest warned her not to get too close, but she ignored him.
“Linc, it’s okay, we’re not going to hurt you,” she said and the guy snorted. Linc looked over at him and realized that he was the jogging man who had been following him in the light rail tunnel. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the other roughneck, but wondered if he had been the man in the suit.
“Can you give us a second?” Kate said. It was less a question than an order.
“You sure about that?”
“He looks pretty secure to me,” she said, but this didn’t seem to convince him. “You can stand over by the door, you’ll be able to keep an eye on us.” She put her hand on us shoulder and gently pulled him away. “Go.”
“Okay, but I’ll be right over there if there’s trouble.” He gave Linc one last look and then disappeared from view. Kate watched him walk away before speaking.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“How do I look?”
“Terrible, but better than you’ve looked in the last few days.”
“Why’d you tie me down?”
“The reason that you’ve been restrained is that you were going through detox and you became violent. We gave you some medication to help ease the process for you, but it also worked as a sedative, which is why you’ve been sleeping.”
“So you knocked me out?” He didn’t like the idea of being drugged, detox or no detox.
“You weren’t in much of a condition for us to do anything but sedate you. You were lashing out, fighting with the staff, it was a dangerous situation all around. Believe me, you were better off sleeping it off. “
“How long’ve I been out?” he asked.
“Three days,” she said after a long pause.
“Three days? You knocked me out for three days?”
“Not all of that was from the sedation, you were sobering up and having symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, you would have been unconscious in either case. The drugs just made it easier on you. You are actually pretty lucky; your blood alcohol content was such that you really should have died. We were all amazed that you were able to walk here, for the amount of alcohol in your system an elephant wouldn’t have been able to move.”
Although she was probably right, he had drunk himself into a stupor, he wasn’t about to trust somebody who had him tied to a gurney. If she was really telling the truth she shouldn’t have a problem letting him out, he obviously was no longer delirious. The restraints had rubbed his wrists and ankles raw and he couldn’t take it much longer without seriously losing his shit again. He also had forgotten how little he liked enclosed spaces; he couldn’t remember the last time he had been in a room without a window and it was setting him on edge. Even the rhythmic whir of the IV, pumping who knew what into his veins, was distressing. He could feel the cold liquid pulsing up his arm.
“I seem to be doing better,” he said, trying not to sound as crazy as he felt right now, “how about, you know taking these things off?”
He lifted his restrained wrists through the entire range of motion they allowed. He was really regretting his decision to come here and put himself under somebody else’s power. It hadn’t been very long since he had sworn never to make that mistake again, and yet here he was.
“Oh, sure, we can do that.” She motioned for jogging man to come over. Linc wanted to let out a sigh of relief, to relax, but he really couldn’t relax until he was actually unrestrained. Maybe not even until he was outside again with the sky above his head.
“Are you sure about this?” The jogging man asked, a set of keys dangling tantalizingly from his hand. Linc gritted his teeth, he wouldn’t be able to bear it if she changed her mind. He would flip out and they would have to knock him out for a week this time. Kate looked at Linc again, who in turn tried not to look agitated. Finally, she said, “Yeah, I think we’re good.”
As soon as the straps were removed, he had to restrain his impulse to sprint for the door. Instead, he sat up on the edge of the gurney and almost tipped over. His balance seemed to be off and the sudden movement threw it off further. The room seemed to whirl around him. He rubbed his temples, trying to relieve the feeling and realized he was still connected to the IV lines. Kate, noticing his dismay, disconnected the lines. While he was rubbing his head, the two men departed.
“Feeling woozy?” Kate asked and he nodded. “That’s going to persist for a few days. Your balance and your strength will take longer to return, you’ve been beating up on your body for too long for it to bounce right back. You might also have hallucinations and bad dreams for a while.”
“Hallucinations? What kind?” He didn’t trust that all of his symptoms were from alcohol and not from what they had given him.
“Normally, I’d say auditory hallucinations, but I guess you’re used to that. It’ll probably be mostly very vivid dreams.”
“I can deal with that,” he said, although he didn’t find her words entirely reassuring. He already had bad dreams most of the time; if they were worse than usual he’d really need to hit the bottle. If he drank enough he could usually make the bad dreams go away. Either that or he was too drunk to remember them. Either way, it worked for him.
“How’s the buzzing?” she asked.
“The buzzing?” He was surprised by the question because he hadn’t even noticed it. Now that she mentioned it, he could kind of feel it, but if she hadn’t said anything he might have just thought it was the fluorescent lights. “It’s alright, what’d you do?”
“We adjusted the modulation after you arrived.” She was obviously proud of her achievement. “It seemed to have an effect on you when you first arrived, so we knew we had to make some changes.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Good, now how about a tour of the facility?”
“Sure,” he said, eager to scope out an escape route if for later.
“Let’s go, then,” she said, sounding much more cheerful than Linc felt. His equilibrium was still all over the place, but he thought he could stand up. He set his feet on the floor and pushed off of the gurney. Pain radiated up his legs as soon as he stood up and he almost fell back down. Kate caught him as he started backward. He didn’t like her touching him, but right now he didn’t have much choice, it was either that or ending up on his ass. He couldn’t believe how old he felt right now. It was if he had been asleep for thirty years instead of three days.
At the door, she placed a metal fob on a glowing green screen. A second later, the door clicked unlocked and Kate pushed it open. He followed her out of the room and into a hallway. The hallway had a much different feel to it than the seclusion room. While the seclusion room had been pure white and sterile, the hallway looked like the inside of a fancy, high-tech, start up company. Or at least what Linc imagined one looked like, he didn’t really have a frame of reference.
Everywhere he looked, there was light colored wood, glass walls, and digital green displays. The hallway and surrounding rooms had an airy, modern feel to them. He glanced back over his shoulder to see what the doorway to the seclusion room looked like and discovered that it blended in with the rest of the wall; if he hadn’t just stepped out of it, he wouldn’t have known that a room existed on the other side of the wood paneling. For some reason, this sent a chill down his spine. He didn’t expect a huge sign saying ‘restraint room’, but the fact that it was hidden from view made him nervous. It made him wonder what else was hidden from his view. He felt disoriented and cut off from his abilities inside this building.
“So, you use that restraint room much?” he asked.
“No, not much, not for that anyways. You’re the first person we’ve had come in such a state. We have other uses for it that you’ll see later.” Perhaps sensing his discomfort she added, “Nothing bad, though. Don’t worry.”
“Why would I be worried,” he replied. He was scoping out the place as they walked. He was glad to see the main entrance on his left hand side. From this side, the windows appeared perfectly clear. In the distance he saw the back of the receptionist’s head sitting at a desk.
“Genetitech is involved with several lines of research, of which we are a small off-shoot,” Kate narrated as the walked. They passed a cluster of people having an impromptu meeting in the hall and Kate paused her explanation. Linc glanced at them and he didn’t need to read their thoughts to see what they felt about him. Each of them looked him up and down, expressions of borderline revulsion on their faces. Linc hung his own head down, suddenly hyper-aware of his bedraggled appearance and his own stench, both of which stood in stark contrast to the immaculate interior of the Genetitech building. He shuffled along next to Kate, not making eye contact with the other employees.
“We’ve been conducting research into telepathy for about fifteen years altogether. Most of that before my time, of course,” she said, picking up her explanation. She came to a stop next to a doorway. “I’m going to show you the living quarters, where you’ll be staying while you’re with us,” she said, tapping her metal fob on another green pad. She made it sound like he was on vacation, although in a sense he was on a vacation from living on the street. Really anything would appear plush in comparison to his regular living arrangements.
“Are we going to meet the others?” he asked quietly. This was what he was really interested in, seeing what they were like.
“Yeah, you know, the others like me.” He didn’t know what to call them, if they were mind readers, telepaths, mutants, or some other description he had never heard before.
“Oh, those ‘others’. Of course, but a little later, they’re out right now.”
“They’re allowed out?” He hadn’t been expecting that, he thought they’d be kept inside all the time.
“Yes, they’re allowed out. As I said before, this isn’t prison. You are free to leave any time you’d like. We’re here to help you. We don’t recommend you go out for the first few weeks of the program, until you have a better handle on your gifts, but after that you can come and go as you please.”
“Alright,” he replied.
This ineloquent reply, which fell lazily from his mouth, didn’t adequately capture the relief he felt. Still, he couldn’t get the last bit of tension to fall out of his shoulders. Waking up strapped to a gurney tended to get him a little bit wound up.
“Should I continue the tour?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said.
“Great. The living area is a big rectangle,” she said, gesturing down the hallway. She continued to talk as she guided him along, “Rooms are on the outside walls and there is a common area in the center.”
“How many people did you say lived here?” he asked. The hallways seemed to stretch much farther the he would have expected for the handful of two others she had told him about.
“Just the two. Now three,” She paused for a beat then, as if sensing the next question on Linc’s mind, continued, “but we have space because we don’t know yet how many people of your talents are out there.”
The answer didn’t satisfy Linc, but he had little choice but to accept it for now. Instead of focusing on his lingering doubts, he decided to take in his new surroundings. The living area was quite nice, more like a fancy hotel than a medical facility. The design fit with that of the main lobby, except more closed off feeling. The central area turned into a kitchen and, beyond that, what Kate described as an ‘activity room’ with a large television and a pool table. The setup seemed geared toward young people and had the vibe of what he would imagine a dorm to be like. After getting the tour of the activity room, they circled back to where they had started. Directly across the hallway, Kate tapped her metal fob onto a pad and waited for it to click.
“Are you ready to see your room?”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied. He rubbed his beard anxiously.
“After you,” she said and then pushed open the door.
After an awkward pause, Linc stepped into the room. While the room was not as luxurious as the rest of the building, it definitely looked comfortable. There was a full-sized bed with a comforter that put his own, threadbare, blanket to shame; a television on the opposite wall; and best of all, there was a private bathroom. He pushed open the bathroom door, leaving behind a smudge of dirt. The inside of the bathroom was fairly utilitarian, but Linc didn’t care because it had a glass-enclosed shower. The last shower Linc had taken had been weeks before in a communal shower room at a shelter downtown. He could never really take a good shower in one of those, the water was lukewarm if not cold, and he had to take his showers in the middle of the night so that he didn’t hear voices. Compared to that, this looked like heaven.
He must have had a smile on his face, because Kate asked, “It looks nice, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, this will be alright,” he replied, but the smile dropped from his face when he caught his reflection in the mirror.
It was one of those plastic mirrors, the kind that won’t shatter, so the refection was a little fuzzy. Even in the distorted reflection, however, he still looked more bedraggled than he would have hoped. His hair and beard were caked with dirt and what was more than likely vomit. His eyes were sunken and crazy-looking. His clothes were dark and tattered and, compared to the antiseptic bathroom, smelled something fierce. It was no wonder he had gotten those dirty looks, he kind of looked like a black Charles Manson. If Charles Manson had decided to let himself go. He had to wonder if he was kidding himself about having a normal life, maybe he was meant to always be an outsider.
“Is there, uh, could I get some new clothes?”
“Sure. I can get you something temporary for right now, until we can pick you up something more permanent. Is there anything else we can get for you?”
He looked at his reflection again, thinking about it. “Hair trimmers?”
“Trimmers?” She asked, thinking, “Yes, that shouldn’t be a problem. That will take a little longer. Meanwhile, I’ll get you some clothes. I will be right back.”
“Thanks,” he replied and watched her leave.
He looked around, but didn’t touch anything else and make a mess. In her absence, the room was really quiet and he was more aware of the buzzing. It seemed to be stronger toward the back wall of the room, by the bed. He shuffled towards the wall in attempt to test his theory. The door behind him opened again before he could go more than two feet, but it had been far enough to confirm that it was louder at that side of the room.
“As promised,” he heard Kate say behind him.
Linc turned to find her holding what looked like a white sweat suit, the type of clothes an orderly at a hospital would wear. He remembered men wearing those outfits all too well and couldn’t suppress a shudder upon seeing them. Kate didn’t notice his aversion to the clothes and tried to hand them to him. When he didn’t accept them, she gave him a puzzled look.
“Could you set them down in the bathroom?” he asked and showed her his dirty hands in what he hoped was a plausible explanation.
In response she placed the clothes on the counter next to the sink. She told him that she would check back in with him at dinnertime and departed. Alone again in the silence, he walked to the back wall, which seemed to be the source of the buzzing. He put his hand on the wall and expected to feel it vibrating against them. Instead, all he felt was textured drywall beneath his palm. Meanwhile, his whole face was tingling. He knew he should ask Kate about how the buzzing worked, but somehow felt reluctant to bring up the subject. There were too many things about this place that didn’t quite fit together yet, but for now all he could think about was how good a hot shower would feel.
When he turned the tap the water was immediately scalding hot. He eased off the heat just slightly before stepping in. The heat was just on this side of uncomfortable, but felt too good to turn down any lower. He tried to burn off all of the frigid nights he had spent outdoors, but they were buried too deep in his bones to banish completely. After spending what was likely too much time under the tap, he stepped out of the shower, water dripping everywhere. He could barely breathe through all of the steam in the bathroom and had to open the door to let fresh air in. It had been years since he had felt this clean, even the dirt under his fingernails had vanished.
He dried himself off with one of the plush white and blue towels from under the sink and wiped condensation from the mirror with it. Standing there in the steam-filled room he took stock of himself. While he looked much better now that he was clean it still appeared that one more missed meal would do him in. Each of his ribs was easily visible under the unforgiving light of the bathroom. His skin was pulled tight against his bones and his bones looked like they were controlled by rubber bands where his muscles should be. He wondered how this had happened to him, how he had become this animated corpse. Before he could consider this any further, darkness rapidly crowded out his vision. He reached out for the counter, but he could no longer see it and so missed it by miles. He had just enough time to think that it was going to hurt when he hit the floor before he passed out completely.
“Linc, Linc,” he heard a woman’s voice call from out of the blackness.
“Hello?” he tried to call back, but he could tell his vocal cords were not working. Instead he heard the word echo in his head. There was no response. After what felt like a long time he assumed the voice had gone away.
“Linc,” the voice said again, but it sounded more distant now. It was more distorted, like a radio station losing signal strength.
“Who…Who are you?” he asked in his head.
“Don’t trust them, Linc,” she said.
“Who are you? What are you talking about?” The woman’s voice frightened him, it was unnatural and ghostly sounding.
“Linc, Linc,” she said again. This time, her voice sounded different. It was much closer and sounded more familiar, warmer even. Like the voice knew him. He felt himself being shaken and he struggled to wake up.
“Linc,” the voice came again and this time he recognized it as Kate’s.
He tried to open his eyes, but is eyelids were incredibly heavy. Even when he managed to force them open they shut again immediately. A cold punch to the side of his face finally kick started him awake. Kate was looking down on him from a weird angle and it took a moment for him to register that she was kneeling next to him and pressing a cold washcloth against his face. The second thing he realized was that he had been naked when he passed out and scrabbled with his hands to find his towel. With a few groping motions he had it in his hand and managed to cover up the last tattered remains of his dignity.
“What happened?” he asked, although the memory of having collapsed was slowly coming back.
“The water was still going when I came in. I turned it off. The heat and steam must have been too much for you. You’re still not well, even that little bit of stress was probably a shock to your system.” She looked at him with what seemed to be genuine concern in her eyes.
“Who else is in here?” he asked, now recalling the voice that had preceded Kate’s.
“There’s nobody else here.”
“I heard another woman’s voice. Just now.”
“You couldn’t have heard another woman’s voice, I’m the only one here.” The concern in her eyes had deepened. She touched her hand to his forehead. “You’re all clammy, let’s get you out of this bathroom and get you some cool air.”
She dragged him to his feet, which indeed did feel unsteady beneath him. His head swirled again and he let if droop forward.
“Stay with me now,” she said, putting his arm around her neck and moving him out to the bedroom. The cooler air did make a difference, but he was still of little help to Kate. She walked in tandem with him over to his bed and set him down. She disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a glass of cold water, condensation dripping down the side.
Linc didn’t feel like drinking the water, but Kate forced him to take a sip. Once the first drop hit his lips, he immediately had to drink it all. Without even really trying, and despite Kate’s admonition, he had gulped down the entire glass and was asking for more. When she brought him the refill, he drank a little slower.
“You heard another woman’s voice?” she asked between his swallows.
“Yup,” he replied. He was starting to feel a cramp in his side and wasn’t really listening.
“What did she say?”
“Huh? I don’t know my name a couple of times. It’s kind of fuzzy now.” He thought it was funny how something could be so clear one moment, but dissolve the next. It was kind of like a dream now, becoming less salient by the second.
“You were probably just hearing me, then. I had to yell at you several times. You were pretty somnolent.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it. Except…” He finished the water. That didn’t seem right, the voice hadn’t been Kate’s. He couldn’t really remember what it did sound like now, but he knew that much.
“Except?” She was watching him closely and it made him a little uncomfortable.
“Nah. Nah, you’re right. I was pretty out of it, I don’t know what I was thinkin’.” He shook his head. He wasn’t really convinced by her, but he also wasn’t up for arguing about it either. Besides, something told him that he was better off keeping it to himself.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, you are going to have some hallucinations for a few days as you progress through the detoxification process. They should get less intense as you process out the toxins.”
“Uh-huh. Where’d those clothes go?” he asked, hoping to change the subject.
“They’re still in the bathroom, I’ll get them for you.”
She disappeared into the bathroom and he took the opportunity to tighten the towel around himself. When she returned she set the clothes next to him in the bed. Then she left the room so that he could change in private. He pulled them on quickly so that she wouldn’t walk back in on him while he was still half-naked. He needn’t have hurried, she took her time returning. While he was waiting, he tried to remember the voice, but it was no use; the harder he thought about it, the more elusive it was. By the time Kate returned, he couldn’t remember it at all.
“You’re looking better,” she said.
“Thanks,” he replied, looking away. Compliments, or anything resembling a compliment made him self-conscious. Maybe because he normally could hear the truth behind them. Most of the time people didn’t really mean their compliments, there was usually an ulterior motive. People would compliment you because they wanted something from you, or because it made them feel better about themselves, or even just because it was expected of them.
“Would you like to get something to eat and meet the others?” The thought of meeting the others perked him up, he’d been dying to meet them.
“Yeah, sounds good,” he replied, his voice giving away his excitement.
“Let’s go then,” she said, holding the door for him.
He followed her to the common area, his hands shaking with apprehension. Despite his best efforts, he reverted to clenching and unclenching his fists. To give his hands something to do and because he was now self-conscious about it, he tried to pat down his wet and unruly hair. It seemed like he was just making it worse, so he let them drop to his sides again, where they resumed their clenching. All of a sudden the white jump suit Kate had given him, which had been fine moments before, seemed baggy and unflattering. He felt like he was the outcast kid in school again.
They turned the corner into the kitchen and his hands were now sweating in earnest. Inside the kitchen, chatting like a couple of old friends, were a guy and a girl who appeared to be about the same age as him, in their early to mid-twenties. If he had been self-conscious before, it was nothing compared to how he felt now. They both were stylishly dressed, well groomed, and could have just stepped out of an Urban Outfitters ad. In fact, the girl appeared to have a bag from that store sitting next to her. On top of all that, they were clearly already buddies; before he even opened his mouth he felt like an outsider. It was bad enough being disconnected when you truly were different, but the possibility of being ostracized by people like him was crushing.
“Linc?” the girl asked as soon as she saw him. She sounded far more excited than he had expected. She jumped up from her chair and ran up to him. “I’m Moira. I know we haven’t actually met, but I’ve followed you around a bunch.”
“I know that sounds crazy, like I’ve been stalking you,” she laughed, a little maniacally, “but we had to make sure you were you. You know?”
“Yeah. I guess.” She came on a little strong, a little like hail hitting him in the face.
“Sorry, this is Javier,” she said, gesturing at her friend, who was now standing behind her.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Linc asked in something just louder than a mumble.
“It took you long enough to sober up,” Javier said and his eyes told Linc that he wasn’t interested in being his friend. Linc couldn’t tell if this was his natural reaction to strangers or if he was worried that there was competition for Moira’s attention.
“Yeah,” Linc replied. Even he couldn’t have expected this much open hostility.
“Don’t mind him, we’re still working on housebreaking Javier,” Moira said.
“Ugh, this is boring. Are we eating soon?” Javier asked Kate.
“In a few minutes,” she replied.
“Oh, almost forgot,” Moira said, “this is for you.” She handed him the bag that she had been fiddling with.
“For me?” He wasn’t used to receiving presents and so regarded the offering with suspicion. After considering how rude it would be to refuse the offer, he accepted the bag. Inside he found a couple of pairs of jeans and a rainbow assortment of T-shirts.
“I called her and asked her to pick some clothes up for you,” Kate said. “I had to guess on your size.”
“Did you get the other item I asked for?” Kate asked.
“Right here,” Moira said, handing over an electric trimmer sealed inside clear plastic packaging.
“Great, thanks.” Linc had never wanted to trim his hair and beard more. “Can I go use these now?” More here with Moira and Javier. Add Joe
It was with a great deal of reluctance that Linc returned to the restraint room. When Kate told him that the room was on the agenda for the day he began to perspire all over. Despite his misgivings, the room appeared quite different when they arrived. The gurney he had been tied to was retracted into the wall, the IV pole had been removed, and an aluminum table with two chairs had been set in the center of the room. Otherwise, the room was completely empty.
“Have a seat,” Kate said, gesturing to the chair that faced the doorway.
Linc glanced at the two-way mirror, wondered who was sitting on the other side, rubbed his freshly shaved head, and then took a seat. He could see his reflection over Kate’s shoulder and it was difficult for him to not stare at the stranger looking back at him. It had been two days since he had used the trimmers and he still couldn’t get used to his new appearance. Before he cut his hair and beard he had looked skinny, now he looked downright emaciated. His jaw and cheekbones jutted out like ragged peaks and his cheeks had sunken into ragged valleys.
“Are you listening to me?” Kate asked and he realized that she had been talking to him.
“What? Yeah, I hear you.” Linc replied, trying to play off his lack of attention.
“What did I say then?”
“Maybe I didn’t get everything, can you repeat it?” He asked, pulling his gaze from his appearance. Kate sighed.
“As I was saying, we’re going to start slow with teaching you to control your abilities. We’re going to have one person come in and for you to try to listen in on their thoughts.”
“But the buzzing…”
“We will turn the disrupters in this room off for the duration of your practice today.”
“Turn it off just in this room? How does that work?”
Linc had been fishing for more information on how the technology blocked his abilities, but without much luck. He shuddered at his own use of the word “abilities”; it was the word everybody at Genetitech used for the voices, but it sounded too cold and clinical for him. The voices were raw and wild, too rough around the edges to be described as abilities. Football players had ‘abilities’, what he had was something different entirely.
“It’s pretty complex how it works, it would be too difficult to explain right now.” Kate’s tone made him bristle. Maybe it was just his old man coming through, but he felt like she was talking down to him. And he wasn’t having any of that.
“I’m not dumb, you know,” he said, not caring that his impatience was showing through.
“Oh, I know that you are very intelligent,” she replied with an earnestness that took him aback. “I just meant that we don’t have much time before the subject arrives. The short answer is that the disrupters have to be pointed in a certain direction to work.”
“Like a radio transmitter?”
“Kind of like a radio transmitter, yes. The devices in the walls of this building are like a bunch of little radio transmitters put together, pointing in every direction.”
“So you can turn off the transmitters that point into this room and turn off the buzzing?”
“Even better than that, we can selectively turn off any area in this building, making bubbles where your abilities work. We can also modulate how much power certain areas have.”
“Like the wall next to my room?” He asked and immediately realized his mistake. He could tell that Kate had been telling him more about the technology than she intended and his question made her put her guard up again.
“We should really get to work again,” she said. “As I was saying earlier, you’ll be practicing your abilities on a single person. That will allow you to focus on just one ‘voice’, as you call them.”
“Whose brain am I crackin’? Anybody I know?” he asked, backing off his line of questioning. He’d have to wait for another time and be subtler about it next time. He hadn’t heard the other woman’s voice again, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Whatever was on the other side of the wall was so secret that nobody was talking about it and that made him nervous.
“Hardly,” she said with a smile, “that would ruin the objectivity. No, we have a volunteer, somebody not associated with you or Genetitech. It makes the practices cleaner to have a third party.”
“What did you tell him he’d be doing, getting his fortune read?” He gave her what he hoped was a sly grin, but he could see in the mirror that it had instead come off as kind of dopey.
“The subject is a ‘her’, actually, but you’re not far off. We told her she’d be part of a telepathic experiment.”
“For real? You told her about me?” He was stunned that they would give away that kind of information to an outsider.
“Oh, no, we advertised for people who thought they were telepathic.” Now it was her turn to give a sly grin, but she actually pulled it off. “She has a list of words that she has been instructed to implant in your mind. That way we can test you and when you answer out loud, she gets to think she’s really telepathic.”
“Smart,” he said, “but what if she does turn out to be really telepathic?”
“Then we’ll recruit her as well. Are you ready to begin?”
Linc stretched out, like he was getting ready for a track meet, and took a couple of deep breaths. He didn’t know why he was doing it, but it felt like he should do something to get ready. When he was finished with his routine, he nodded to Kate and said, “Alright, let’s do this.”
“Please, have a seat,” she said and pulled out one of the lightweight aluminum chairs. When he sat down, she added, “I’ll be on the other side of the mirror. When she comes in, she will sit down opposite you and go through her list of words. Just say them out loud as they come to you.”
“That’s it?” he asked. This was way too simple; pulling out one word at a time was an elementary skill for him. His problem was hearing too many thoughts.
“That’s it. I’ll see you in a few minutes.” She walked out of the room and the door closed snapped shut behind her.
He expected the woman to come in right away, but for several minutes he sat alone in silence. In his time, he thought about how strange it was that six days before he really had been alone out in the world. Now when he was ‘alone’ there was somebody sitting five feet away watching his every move. For the first time in years he was living and sharing his meals with other people. They were people he barely knew, but still. In addition to Moira and Javier, Kate was also a frequent visitor to the living quarters, checking in on him and working with them on their training.
From what he had been able to gather, their training was far more advanced than his own, but they really didn’t talk about it much. Used to knowing everybody’s secrets, being kept out of the loop was maddening to Linc. He knew they were intentionally keeping things from him. Or maybe they weren’t keeping things from him at all, it only seemed that way because he didn’t know what they were thinking. He scratched anxiously at a beard that was no longer there.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. He looked up to see a woman, probably in her fifties, with long white hair walk in. She was dressed all in brown and gave the impression of a sparrow or some other fragile little bird. She sat down across from him and smiled self-consciously, but didn’t say anything.
“Hi,” he said finally, not able to stand the silence anymore.
“They said I’m not supposed to talk to you,” she whispered as if somebody were listening. Which, of course, they were.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. She gave him a reproachful look and so he leaned back in his chair like a scolded child.
They sat in silence, but nothing came, no voice, not even a whisper. He started to get worried that maybe the voices were gone. He was surprised by how much that thought worried him. He squirmed in his chair; he couldn’t believe somebody had thought these would be comfortable. Linc looked up at the woman, hoping that concentrating on her would help. Nothing came and now he was freaking out a little. He was just about to jump up and scream when a green light went on next to the mirror. Nothing happened at first and then there was a loud thunk and her voice came flooding into his head. Linc didn’t know if it was because the voices had been blocked for almost a week, but the woman’s voice was incredibly intense.
“The green light is on,” her inner voice yelled at him, “that means I need to start. Oh gosh, what was the first word?”
Her thoughts were so pressured that Linc’s could barely think himself. He dug his fingers around the edge of the table, his nails burying into the aluminum. He strained to collect his own thoughts, which were being squeezed to the corners of his mind by the woman’s.
“Was it frog? Oh, no, I’m blowing this. No, wait, it was guitar. Frog was second. That’s right, guitar. Okay, give it a try.”
She had been looking down at the table while she was thinking, but now she looked up at Linc, her face scrunched up in concentration. There was a pause in her thoughts, like she was taking a deep breath. His fingers involuntarily relaxed a fraction, his shoulders drooped. Then her inner voice yelled at him, “Guitar!” His fingers tightened around the table and he gritted his teeth.
“Did it work?” he heard her voice say, but he was so stunned by the ferocity of her thoughts that he couldn’t react. “Should I try again?” There was another pause, she was preparing to try again. He had to stop her before she could, he didn’t think he could stand it if she yelled her thoughts at him again.
“No,” he said, his voice gravelly.
“What?” she asked, but he wasn’t sure if it was her regular voice or her inner voice.
“Guitar,” he forced the word out, “the word is guitar.”
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. It worked. I can’t believe it.” The woman’s face glowed with excitement. “You heard me think that? You really heard it? This isn’t some kind of trick?”
“No. I heard you. Loud and clear,” he said through gritted teeth and she smiled at him.
“I knew I could do it, I knew it. This will show that bitch Karen,” she thought. He tried to smile back at her, but he could see in the mirror that it looked more like a muscle spasm in his cheek. In her enthusiasm for accomplishing her goal, her thoughts grew incoherent, tumbling over each other.
“Was there another word?” he asked finally.
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” she said, touching her fingers to her mouth. “What was that word?”
“Before you go,” he said, “could you not think as hard next time?”
“I guess I didn’t know my own strength,” she said, now giddy. She apparently had forgotten the rule about not talking to him.
“Yeah,” he agreed, his throat dry. He wished he had a glass of water. “The second word was frog, you can probably skip that one.”
“But, how did you…” she started.
“I heard you think that one, too,” he said.
“Oh, good.” She was practically bouncing up and down in her chair.
Her thoughts continued to be scattered, but became more focused as she recalled the third word on her checklist. The word panda came into her mind even before she directed the thought at Linc and he had to wonder who compiled the list of seemingly random words. The woman directed the word at him and he, to her ecstasy, dutifully recited it back to her. His voice quivered as he repeated ‘panda’ to her. His hands shifted on the table due to a rapidly growing layer of sweat. Something had to be done; otherwise he wouldn’t make it five more minutes in this room. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” she asked out loud, but thought, “Is this guy having a stroke? Should I get somebody?”
“Alright…I’m…alright,” he stammered.
In his head he pictured a great puffy wall of cotton between them, muffling her voice. At first there was no change, in fact it was worse as her thoughts grew more panicked. As the wall coalesced and became more solid in his imagination, however, the volume of her voice dipped. Not enough to muffle it completely, but enough to take the edge off. His eyes flickered open to slits, the light was too intense to open them fully, and he looked at the woman. Her eyes were giant, unblinking orbs and she looked ready to leap over the table and initiate CPR.
“I’m alright,” he said again, the time actually kind of believing it, “really.”
The woman looked, and her thoughts confirmed that she was, skeptical, but she relaxed back into her chair. Still concentrating on the wall he had conjured in his mind, he let go of the table, leaving two sweaty handprints behind, and then leaned back as well. The woman’s thoughts grew less frantic and incoherent as she calmed down. It took her a few minutes to collect herself and remember the next word, but this was fine with him. He spent the time perfecting the mental wall. If he let his concentration lapse for even a moment the volume of her thoughts shot back up. He visualized the wall growing more and less dense, working it like a volume control slider. By the time she had completed her list of words, thirty in all, Linc pretty much had it down. With a concerted effort, he was able to control the sound level with a fair degree of skill. He wouldn’t be able to control it while carrying on a conversation, it was hard enough repeating one word at a time, but it was a start.
“I’m all done now,” the woman said with a barely concealed grin.
“Oh,” he said. He had known she was at the end of her list, but he was far too focused on maintaining his concentration to acknowledge it. She let her face betray very little, but her thoughts said otherwise.
“Oh my gosh, this is so great! I finally know for sure that I’m psychic!” he heard her thoughts say.
Her enthusiasm made Linc a little sad and a little envious. It was a cruel joke that Genetitech had played on this woman, allowing her to think that she was being validated in her wacky beliefs. She would walk out of the experiment today convinced that she possessed psychic abilities and no amount of reasoned persuasion would convince her otherwise. She was already planning on bragging about her abilities to her friends and family. “This will show them,” she thought. Linc couldn’t help envisioning the years of her life that would be wasted on this misbegotten belief. At the same time he felt jealous at how happy this conviction made her. He wished that he could be so full of joy at the prospect of his ‘abilities’. How conforming it would be to experience such blind exultation. But then she also hadn’t heard what her parents actually thought about her either. Or seen the things he had seen, either.
“I guess this is goodbye, then?” she asked.
“I guess,” he replied and, not knowing what else to do, looked down at his hands.
The green light near the mirror extinguished itself and the buzzing flowed over Linc like high tide coming in. He was so exhausted by the effort of the last fifteen minutes that he was grateful for the return of the tingling sensation. The door to the room swung open and he heard footsteps.
“Miss Finch, we’re all done with the experiment,” he heard Kate say.
“Goodbye, now,” Miss Finch said and then was gone forever.
“We just have some paperwork for you to complete in the next room. My assistant will help you out with it.”
“Thank you, dear,” Miss Finch replied and then dropped her voice down to a whisper. “You should get that nice boy some help, I’m not sure that he’s well.”
“We’ll make sure to take care of him,” Kate replied in a whisper of her own. Folks around Genetitech were clearly not good whisperers.
The door closed again and then Kate sat down opposite from him. They sat in silence long enough for him to feel uncomfortable and look up. The corners of her mouth were upturned in an expression that was a mix of smile and grimace so he wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling. Her eyes told him it was probably a smile, but he wouldn’t have bet on it.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
“Yeah…No. I can barely keep my eyes open,” he said. The conversation with Miss Fitch had tired him our in a way that he had never felt before. He had been worn out before for sure, but not like this. Every cell in his body was completely spent and he really didn’t think he had the energy to stand up from the chair.
“Drink this,” she said setting a bottle of what looked like Gatorade on the table. “It will make you feel better.”
“What the hell is it?” He would have recoiled from the body if it wouldn’t have taken so much effort to move.
“The technical name for it is Substance Q, but Moises and Javier have another name for it.”
“What’s that?” he asked, not feeling reassured.
“I’ll let them tell you. They’ll enjoy that more than I will.” Linc picked up the bottle and examined it more closely, but he wasn’t sure what he was hoping to find.
“What’s in it?”
“Mostly water, but also vitamins and electrolytes. You’re brain expends a tremendous amount of energy when you use your abilities and Substance Q helps replenish that energy. A session like this is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for a professional football player.”
“It’s not going to knock me out for three days is it?”
“No, nothing like that. You will feel the effects fairly quickly. Within five minutes you will feel back to normal.”
“Or as normal as I get,” he said. He didn’t entirely trust her or the liquid, but he figured that if they wanted to poison him, they could have done it at any time. He unscrewed the lid and took a sip. It tasted terrible, but he’d tasted worse. He chugged the rest of the bottle and then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“How do you think that went?” she asked.
“You’re sounding like a doctor, now,” he said, already feeling better. Few things put him on guard as quickly as doctors and their questions.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Doctors always want to know how you think things went, but they never want to tell you what they thought.” He mulled this over for a second before continuing. “But I guess the joke’s on them. I always knew what they thought anyways.”
“In that case, I’ll tell you what I thought, then you can tell me if you’d like.” She smiled and this time he was sure it was a smile. “I think it went really well. Somewhat rocky at first, you’ll have to tell me what that was all about, but then you appeared to gain control. What was the difference?”
Linc explained, the words coming slowly, about how Miss Finch’s thoughts had nearly overcome him; his method for bringing them under control; and about the difficulty he had maintaining control. Kate scribbled furiously in a bound notebook as he spoke, but managed to not break eye contact with him the whole time. He longed to look down at what she was writing, but with their eyes locked he never had an opportunity. When he finished talking she closed her notebook and pulled a rubber band around it.
“We haven’t had that happen before,” she said. Her voice was flat and emotionless, but there was a twinkle of excitement in her eyes. “It will be interesting to see if the results are replicable. Perhaps Miss Finch was an unusual subject.”
“Can we take a break? I’m worn out.” She was right about the Substance Q, it had made him feel better, but he couldn’t imagine going again already. He felt as though he had just run a marathon without having trained for it.
“Certainly. We never schedule more than one session on the first day. You’ll have to work up to increasing your workload.”
Kate nodded at the mirror and then stood up and Linc did the same. It was around lunchtime and the hallway was crowded with other Genetitech employees going on break. Now that Linc had nicer clothing and a haircut he didn’t feel as out of place, but he didn’t really fit in either. She then led him back to the living quarters and into the kitchen. Once there, she pulled a large bottle of Substance Q from the refrigerator.
“We keep a supply in here,” she said and shook the bottle, “in case you need some after our practice sessions.”
“Are they always going to make me that tired?” he asked, the fatigue still lingering.
“Only when you push yourself. As you gain more control a session like that will be less tiring, but we’ll also be grading up the difficulty of your sessions so that you should be challenged each time.” She set the bottle back in the refrigerator.
“Is Kate making you drink Piss?” Moira asked, startling Linc. He didn’t realize that anybody else was in the room. Javier was right next to her as well, but then he was always right next to her.
“Piss?” Linc asked.
“That’s what we call Formula 409, or whatever Kate says it is. She can’t fool me, though, I know piss when I taste it,” Moira said.
“It’s not so bad,” Linc replied, wary of either angering Kate or alienating Moira by being too definitive either way.
“You don’t have to lie, you won’t hurt Kate’s feelings. She knows it tastes terrible,” Moira said.
“Don’t you think you are exaggerating just a little bit?” Kate asked in a clipped tone.
“We’re the ones who have to drink it,” Javier said, joining in.
“Do you drink much of this?” Linc asked, hoping to get as much information as he could about the drink.
“I try not to,” Moira replied with a grin, but quickly wiped it from her face when she saw Kate’s look of disapproval. “But seriously, it does work pretty well. I used to drink it all the time, when I was first training, but I don’t need it as much anymore. The trick is to hold your breath when you swallow. And then you only kind of mostly taste it.”
“Good to know.” He was starting to warm to Moira, she was a little too goofy to be bad. Javier, on the other hand, was still proving difficult to read.
“I need to get going, I have some paperwork to put together,” Kate said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m alright,” Linc said, trying to avoid Javier’s look of disdain.
“I’ll see you later then,” Kate said and then added to Javier, “be nice.”
“Whatever,” Javier said and sighed.
“Do you still practice your ‘abilities’ in that room?” Linc asked after Kate left.
“Not here, no,” Moira said.
“We practice out in the real world,” Javier said, his tone indicating that he thought he was better than Linc.
“How do you practice outside?” Linc directed his words at Moira, trying to ignore Javier.
“It’s no biggie, we find crowds of people and work on our skills. Read people’s minds, steal pin codes, and stuff like that. You should come out with us,” Moira said.
“I’m not sure I’m allowed out. That’s what Kate said, anyways,” he said and immediately regretted it. He felt like a kid telling the cool kids that he had curfew.
“Don’t worry about that,” Javier said and shared a look with Moira.
“Yeah, we can take care of getting you out. If you’re interested.” Her words had the flavor of a dare. Linc felt like he was back on the schoolyard, being tested. He didn’t want to look dumb in front of Moira and Javier and he wanted to fit in, but he was worried about making Kate angry and getting kicked out of Gentitech.
“Um, yeah, maybe.” He didn’t want to commit to any rule breaking and a noncommittal answer seemed like the best bet.
“How about tonight?” Javier asked.
“Uh.” Both of them we’re watching him now, their eyes judging. Tonight seemed way too soon to try out his new skills, what little he had of them. At the same time, there was something tantalizing about the offer, a chance to get out in the world and breathe fresh air. “You sure I won’t get in trouble?”
“We didn’t say that,” Javier said, “but it will be fun.”
“Okay,” Linc said, although he wasn’t sure that he would like Javier’s idea of fun. “I’m in.”
From the darkness he heard the woman’s voice again. He hadn’t heard it since that first night and so it had become almost an illusion to him. In the intervening days he had come to believe that it had really been either Kate’s voice or an artifact of his detoxifying mind. Now that he heard it again, however, there could be no doubting its existence.
“Linc,” the voice called.
“Yes? I hear you,” he replied, or at least he thought he did. Maybe this was all a dream after all.
“Linc, I need your help. I need your help to get out of here,” she said, her voice excited, but scared.
“Who are you? Where are you?” he asked, but his words seemed to evaporate on the air, not nearly as strong sounding as the woman’s.
“I’m trapped, I need your help,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard him.
“Trapped where? Who are you?” His voice was weakening and he was afraid that he was going to lose her again. He wished she would just tell him where she was, or her name even. He needed something tangible to cling to; otherwise this would all just seem like a phantasm when he awoke.
“Hello? Linc, where did you go? Please don’t leave!” There was panic in her voice now and he wanted to reassure her, but he was helpless.
“I’m still here!” he yelled, but the words carried now weight.
“They have me locked up. I’m behind the door.”
“Behind the door? Which door?” he asked, but he thought he already knew the answer. It had to be the locked door at the end of the hallway, the one that nobody ever talked about. That had to be where they were keeping her, but why? And who was she, why wouldn’t she answer? His dream self concentrated with all of his power, focusing his thoughts and he yelled, “Who are you?” Then there was silence and she was gone again.
He thought he had scared her off, that his voice had been too powerful. But from out of the silence she roared back, “MY NAME IS EVA!”
All of a sudden he was shaking, as if her reply had caused an earthquake. He had reached down and mustered as much volume as he possibly could and her response was still a thousand times louder than his own. When he cleared his head he called for her again, but his power was spent and she didn’t hear him. The shaking grew more violent, forcing him from sleep into wakefulness.
As he slid into consciousness, Linc felt hands pressing down on him, suffocating him. His immediate instinct was to lash out and so he flailed with all four limbs; he kicked and punched, aiming at everything and nothing at once. To say that he hoped to connect his punches would have been to attribute more thought to it than he was capable of at that moment. With each passing second it was harder to breath. He was aware of a murmuring voice, but barely more than that. Finally, with a swing of his right arm he landed a punch against something meaty.
“Ow!” A man’s voice yelled, and the pressure was relieved. Still confused, Linc leapt to his feet, not really sure where he was. His breath was raspy, uneven, and the metallic taste of violence filled his mouth.
“Linc, calm the hell down.” It was a woman’s voice this time, Moira’s. Her hands were on his shoulders now and he jerked away. “Calm down, nobody is going to hurt you.” Linc’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness and he could just make out the forms of two people.
“What is wrong with you?” The other voice, which he now recognized as Javier’s, asked. He could see that the Javier shape was rubbing the side of its face.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked between breaths, the adrenaline still pumping through his veins. His hands were balled up into fists, but when he tried to relax them they refused.
“We came to take you out,” she replied, “you know, like we talked about earlier?”
“Are you nuts?” Javier asked, “You hit me in my eye. If I have a black eye I’m going to kick your ass.”
“Sorry about that. I forgot,” Linc said, the memory from earlier in the day flaring back to the surface. He had laid down for a rest and must have fallen asleep.
“Yeah, you’re sorry,” Javier said.
“I’m really sorry?” Linc offered. His sleep-addled mind still couldn’t wrap itself around reality. One moment he was talking to Eva and the next he was wrestling with Moira and Javier.
“Damn right you’re really sorry,” Javier said, but some of the fire was already going out of his voice.
“Calm down, let me look at your eye,” Moira said, her voice soothing. The lights suddenly flicked on and Linc snapped his eyes closed. When he opened them again she was examining Javier’s left eye.
“Don’t jab my eye with your finger,” Javier said.
“Do you want me to look or not?” Moira asked.
“I’m just saying to be careful,” he said, his voice contrite.
“It looks okay to me,” Moira said, “maybe just a little bruise on the side.”
“Good, he better not try to hit me again,” Javier said, more talking to himself than anything.
“I think Linc can agree to not try to hit you again. Right, Linc?” He could hear to plea in her voice to smooth things over. He was eager to concur to the request; he couldn’t stand any sort of tension.
“I won’t try to hit you anymore,” he said.
“Better not,” Javier murmured to himself.
“You guys just surprised me, is all,” he said this apologetically. In reality it was them that snuck up on him in the dark while he was sleeping. It would have been strange if he hadn’t tried to punch them. He figured it probably wasn’t the best time to stand on principle.
“That’s totally understandable, right Javier?” Moira asked.
“I guess,” he replied, but didn’t sound convinced.
“Weren’t we going someplace?” Linc asked, hoping to redirect Javier.
“That’s why we’re here, you still up for it?” Moira said.
“Uh, yeah, where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” Moira said and turned to leave.
Linc followed behind her, being sure not to get too close to Javier and raise his ire. Moira turned the light back off and slowly opened the door, a dim light illuminated her face. After checking the hallway she stepped out. Linc waited for Javier to go and then followed after.
“How are we getting out?” Linc asked Javier, while glancing over at the locked door. Was Eva behind the door right now? He didn’t have much time to ruminate on it, however, as the other two kept moving.
“You worry too much,” Javier said, “Just relax, we’ve got it taken care of.”
Linc didn’t know where they were going, how they were getting there, with two people he barely knew or trusted. He didn’t know how he could not worry. This little adventure had barely begun and already he was regretting it. He considered turning around and heading back to his room where he could continue to try to contact Eva. Somehow he thought that wouldn’t go over very well so he continued on despite his misgivings. Moira was still up ahead and, upon reaching the corner of the hallway, motioned for them to stop. Linc froze, his heart thumping heavily, and listened for the sounds of approaching guards.
“There’s a security camera up ahead,” Javier said, his voice betraying no trace of the anxiety that Linc felt, “No big deal, we just have to wait for it to turn the opposite way. It’s just like a video game.”
“Just like a video game,” Linc muttered. The last video game he had played was Super Mario Brothers back in the day and he was pretty sure there weren’t any flying turtles around the corner. At least he hoped there weren’t.
“Follow my lead and it will be all good,” Javier said.
Before he could think twice, Javier was on the move and pulling him along with him. He hadn’t expected Javier to grasp the front of his shirt and drag him along, so his feet became tangled and he tripped forward. Linc toppled forward onto Javier, who in turn fell to his knees. Javier yelled in pain as bone met tile, but he was back on his feet in an instant and cursing Linc’s clumsiness. Before he could rebound himself, Linc felt Moira grasping his arm and slamming him against the wall. He looked up in time to see the camera complete it’s return arc.
He thought that for sure they would be caught, but fortunately the three of them fit in the small range of invisible to the unblinking eye. When no security alarms sound after thirty seconds and it was clear the police weren’t on their way, Moira turned around and faced the door that led to the outer office space. In her hand she held a small, glowing device that was a little larger than the fob he had seen Kate use to open the doors. She tapped the device against the sensor pad on the wall and nothing happened. Moira cursed, but Linc couldn’t tell if it was at the pad or at her own device. While the camera above them continued to whir along, she tapped the pad feverishly.
“What’s the problem?” Javier asked.
“This stupid thing…” Moira began, but then the pad chirped and the door opened. She didn’t finish the thought, but instead she slipped through the doorway.
“Where’d you get that thing?” Linc asked Moira as they padded quietly past darkened offices.
“Keep your voice down,” Javier warned him.
“There’s sometimes a night janitor,” Moira explained, her own voice just above a whisper, “So we need to keep quiet.”
“Gotcha,” Linc said and Javier shushed him.
They navigated the hallways until they came to the main entrance. With the glass double doors within spitting distance, Moira came to an abrupt halt. They stood in a doorway and Linc couldn’t tell why they had stopped. He looked in every direction before Javier elbowed him in the ribs and pointed straight up. A second camera scanned the entryway and the hallways in both directions. Moira made some hand gestures to Linc that he took to mean that they would run to the doorway one at a time, with her going first. Either that, or she was indicating that he should steal third base. In either event, she again waited for the camera to get to the far end of its arc, and then made a run for it.
The camera was pretty slow, but she still barely made it to the doorway with enough time to slip through the doors before it made its return arc. The glass door had just shut when the overhead camera tracked back. Moira hunkered down behind a half wall to the side of the door and out of view. Linc wasn’t sure that he could make the run in time, but he was too nervous to admit as much to Javier. He watched Javier as he prepared to make the run and wished he knew what he was thinking. He wasn’t looking at Linc; instead his eyes were on the camera. At the last second, he glanced at Linc and added, “Try not to trip this time.” Then he was gone, hustling for the exit. As he approached the glass Moira leapt up and pulled open the door. Javier slid to the side and disappeared. Then it was Linc’s turn.
He had watched both Moira and Javier make a run for, how they had timed it with the camera, and knew exactly when he should go. Linc watched the camera swivel to the perfect position and knew he should go, he consciously thought ‘go now’, but his feet remained cemented in place. All he could think about was Javier’s last words and he pictured, in exquisite detail, tripping and falling flat on his face. In his vision, he saw armed guards rushing him, strapping him back to the table, and leaving him there forever. This vision overloaded all of the normal channels of communication in his body and all he was left with was immobility.
The camera passed through its arc two more times and yet he could not break himself free, the vision of failure was too clear in his mind. Finally, after he had stood frozen for a painfully long time, Moira hazarded a look through the windows. Her head popped up, a quizzical look on her face and then submerged again, like a seal coming up for air before returning to the depths. The next time the camera turned away both Moira and Javier looked up through the window and gestured for him to make his move. When they dropped back down this time he thought he heard Javier yell that they were going to leave him behind, but he couldn’t be sure. The thought of being left behind actually sounded pretty good right now. He could slink back to bed, go to sleep, and forget that any of this had happened. They’d probably give him shit for it the next morning, but that might be better than getting caught trying to sneak out.
There was no telling how long he would have remained there like a statue, they might have come upon him when they were opening the doors in the morning, had he not heard the sound of a cart being pushed down the hallway behind him. The night janitor must have been making his rounds at last. The sound was coming from the living quarters and was headed right towards him. There was no way the janitor could walk past him and not notice him petrified on the spot and he couldn’t go back without being seen. Unless the janitor mistook him for a new art installation, ‘Impression of a Schizophrenic Homeless Man’, he was done for if he didn’t move right now.
He had a decision to make; he could either make a run for it and risk being caught, or stay there and be caught for sure. Even with that stark choice, it was difficult to take that first step. Inertia was always an easier choice than dynamism. What finally galvanized Linc into action was the sound of one of the wheels on the cart. It caught for just a second emitted a high pitch squeal. It was the exact sound the med cart had made when he was in the mental hospital. Instantly, the vision of him tripping was replaced by the vision of the evening med nurse. The med nurse with dark thoughts. The med nurse who spent extra time in his room. The med nurse whose breath reeked of cigarettes. Whose face was as rough as his hands.
Before Linc could even begin to form another thought his feet were moving of their own accord. He didn’t even look for the camera; it no longer existed as far as he was concerned. He was gone. He must have been quite the sight because when Moira looked up again through the window her eyes grew large. He was moving so fast that if she hadn’t opened the door just in time he would have burst through the glass. Once he was safe outside he couldn’t stop moving. Instead he continued sprinting halfway up the block. By the time Javier and Moira caught up to him Linc had sprinted another fifty feet. Moira grabbed his arm and he skittered to a stop. The touch was enough to bring him back to reality and out of the world of a terrified eleven year old. He was puffing heavily, he didn’t get much cardio work in normally, and had to bend forward to try to catch his breath.
“I didn’t think we were going to catch you,” Moira said, breathing hard as well.
“Yeah, where were you headed, Mexico?” Javier asked, panting a little. “Cause I could’ve hooked you up with some of my relatives to stay with.”
“Not if they’re anything like you,” Linc said, before he could think not to. Both he and Moira watched Javier to see how he would react.
“Hell no, they’re not like me,” he said, “I’m the nice one in the family. They call me Will Smith cause I’m so charming and lovable.”
“And because of the big ears,” Moira added.
“You think they’re big for real?” Javier felt his ears self-consciously. “You said before that they went well with my face.”
“They do, your face is kind of big, too.” Moira rubbed Javier’s left ear lovingly. She touched him with a tenderness that again made Linc wonder if there was something going on between them. It made him feel like a voyeur and so he turned his gaze elsewhere.
“Where were you running to, for real?” asked Moira, her hand now resting on the side Javier’s neck.
“Yeah, you looked like you were on fire,” Javier said. Linc was surprised to hear what sounded like genuine concern in both of their voices.
“I was running…” Linc started and he searched for an answer other than the truth. While he was thinking, he noticed for the first time how much clearer his head felt outside of the Genetitech building. Maybe it was just the cool night air, but his thoughts seemed crisper, less sluggish. In the end, he decided the truth actually was the best response, “From the janitor, I heard him coming down the hall.”
“I’d run from that guy, too.” Javier said with a smile, maybe the first one that Linc had seen. “That guy looks like the Crypt Keeper.”
Compared with his memories of the med nurse, Linc would easily have traded him for the Crypt Keeper. Instead of saying this, however, he merely muttered, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, the guy’s creepy. His face is all melted looking and…” Javier said, but Moira cut him off.
“As fun as it would be to hang out all night and play ‘Name that Creepy Janitor’ we probably should get going.”
“Where are we going?” Linc asked again.
“There’s this cool little park nearby, we can hang out for a bit. Maybe work on your skills some,” she said and turned to walk away.
He hadn’t expected to go to a park to work on his telepathy. It would have been easier just to stay in their rooms to practice, rather than engage in all the subterfuge to get out. But then he remembered that the buzzing disrupters kept his ‘skills’ in check and there was no way for him to practice outside of Kate’s prearranged exercises. As he thought this, it suddenly dawned on him that he couldn’t hear either Javier or Moira’s thoughts right now.
It was an odd sensation; this was the first time since he was a child that he had experienced not being aware of the thoughts of those around him, other than with the disrupters, of course. That was a different feeling, however, mechanical and almost perverse. This felt natural, relaxed, like how normal people must experience the world. He checked both Javier and Moira for the earpieces that Kate and Joe used, but saw no sign of them. Finally, he had to ask what was going on, it was too much like magic that he was alone in his own head.
“Hey, did you guys know…” he began.
“That you can’t hear our thoughts?” Moira asked casually.
“Well, yeah,” Linc said, suddenly it occurred to him that even though he couldn’t hear their thoughts maybe they could still hear his. “Are you able to hear mine?”
“Just since we got outside, before that we were blocked just like you,” Moira answered.
This didn’t make Linc feel any better, it meant that they knew everything he had thought about his time in the mental hospital. He frantically tried to make his mind go blank, but of course by trying not to think about the memories he didn’t want them to know about, he made them even more present in his mind. He thought about running away from them as this now seemed like the only way to protect his thoughts.
“Why didn’t you say something? How long were you going to let me go on, not knowing?” He was just beginning to think they were his friends and then they went ahead and betrayed his trust.
“Hey man, there’s no need to panic, just chill out,” Javier said. Linc wanted to punch the smug look off his face; there was no way the Javier would tolerate it if their roles were reversed.
“There’s no reason to resort to violence,” Moira said. “Here, I’ve got something for you.” She searched around in her pocket. “Somewhere, anyways. Wait, just a second.”
While she was rummaging around her pocket, Linc concentrated on only vanilla thoughts. The best way to keep his mind distracted was to do multiplication tables in his head. He could do them for hours, it was the same trick that he used to keep his mind occupied in the mental hospital. When he wasn’t too doped up to think straight, that was. Linc groaned, he wasn’t sure how much longer he could tolerate this; he felt like his brain was being burgled.
“You might want to hurry,” Javier added to Moira, “I think he’s losing it.”
“I know, I know. Oh, here, I got it.” She triumphantly pulled a small object from her jacket pocket. She held it out for Linc to see. It was what looked like an earpiece disrupter.
“Where did you get that?” Linc asked, standing back from the earpiece as if it were a miniature hand grenade.
“I snatched it from the observation booth today,” Moira replied and smiled with pride. “I thought maybe you might need it.”
“You were in there when I was meeting with Miss Finch?” Linc asked, forgetting about the disrupter in Moira’s hand.
“Yeah, they wanted to see what I thought about your abilities,” she said offhandedly, as if the revelation meant nothing to her.
“And what did you think?” If he had known she was on the other side of the one-way glass, he would have been far more self-conscious during the interview. Although he didn’t know what he could possibly have done different, it would have been nice to have been informed that she was there watching and judging him.
“That’s why Kate didn’t tell you,” Moira said, interrupting his thoughts. “It’s no big conspiracy, she just didn’t want you to be nervous.”
“Get out of my head,” Linc said covering his ears and humming to himself. “Stop!”
“If you want me to stop, take this.” She held out the earpiece to him. “That’s why I picked it up at great personal risk to myself. Damn, I’d think you’d be more grateful about it.”
“We didn’t have to bring you out with us,” Javier added, clearly annoyed by Linc’s apprehension. Linc looked from Javier to Moira, his hands still over he ears, trying to ascertain if this was all some cruel prank. He did want them out of his thoughts, but the disrupter still freaked him out.
“Look,” Moira said, “I’ll turn it on right now.” She pressed a button on the side of the earpiece and it flashed blue. When the blue light turned solid Linc felt a buzzing coming from Moira’s hand. “It’s probably strong enough to keep in your pocket instead of in your ear, if you’re worried about it giving you brain cancer.”
“Or looking like one of those douches who walks around wearing an earpiece all the time,” Javier said.
Linc looked at the earpiece once more. He couldn’t decide what about it made him so nervous, it was just a little piece of plastic and electronics. Even if they were tricking him, there was no obvious benefit to them to get him to wear the earpiece. They could just have easily pretended they weren’t hearing his thoughts as well and he wouldn’t have been any wiser. Seeing no other option, he took the disrupter from Moira’s hand and quickly stuffed it in his own pocket.
The buzzing vibrated up his leg, through his bones, and into his skull. The clear-headedness he initially experienced upon his exit from the facility was gone in an instant, replaced instead by a gauzy cloud. He disliked the sensation, but still found it preferable to Javier and Moira being privy to his thoughts.
“Is it working?” he asked.
He knew it was a stupid question, it was obviously doing something, when what he really meant to ask was if they could still hear his thoughts. In response Moira walked right up to him, so close that he could smell her vanilla scented lotion and feel her warm breath on the side of his face. For one brief, insane moment he thought for sure that she was going to kiss him but instead, she hovered there, just millimeters away from making contact with him, listening.
“Nope,” she said and abruptly pulled away from him, “I don’t hear a thing.”
“What about him?” Linc asked, cocking his head at Javier.
“I don’t hear anything either, but that might be because there aren’t any thoughts in that head to hear,” he replied, his earlier joviality already a distant memory. He scowled at Linc and then turned away.
“Good, now that’s settled, let’s get moving,” she said, and turned to walk away.
“Alright,” Linc said, suddenly standing alone. He had to hustle after them before they disappeared.
“In answer to your question before,” Moira said, when he caught up to them, “I was impressed with what I saw. Back with Miss Finch, that is.”
“Really?” Linc asked. He couldn’t remember the last time somebody had complemented him and he wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Absolutely. You were farther along than I would have anticipated. I think you have real promise.” Linc didn’t have to look at Javier to know that he wasn’t happy; he could almost hear him grinding his teeth at Moira’s assessment of Linc’s abilities. Something about the words she chose struck him as strange. The word ‘promise’ sounded wrong to him, but he wasn’t sure why. It seemed to imply that there was something more that he didn’t know about.
“Promise for what?” he asked finally.
“You don’t need to have promise for anything.” She laughed. “Promise is just…promise.”
“Right, that makes sense,” he said, but it really didn’t.
Linc wanted to ask more questions, primarily why he couldn’t hear their thoughts, but he sensed that it wasn’t yet the time. There was something portentous about their journey to the ‘park’ and it seemed that there would be time to have all his questions answered. It was like they were on their way to see the Wizard. Moira could be Dorothy; Javier could be the Tin Man, because he didn’t have a heart; and that would leave either the Cowardly Lion or the Scarecrow for him. He didn’t much like either of those choices, but he supposed it would have to be the Lion. One thing he definitely possessed was a brain. Actually, he could probably do with a little less brain. Linc shook his head; he was thinking crazy ass thoughts again. It was almost kind of better to have other people’s voices in his skull, having them there kept his own mind too occupied to wander. Moira and Javier were walking ahead, talking amongst each other and laughing together at jokes that he didn’t get.
They walked for a block and a half before they reached the southern tip of Lake Union. The sound of the dark water lapping against the shore was drowned out by the raucous noise from a nearby restaurant. Linc glanced over at the restaurant, which was one of those high-end chains, and wondered what it would be like to be one of those happy people having cocktails on the deck. He had never felt a part of anything, even his own family, and even amongst people like himself he still was alone. It was a crushing let down after his hopes had been so high.
“Look at those assholes,” Javier said, and gestured at the same people Linc was currently envying.
“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t know if Javier expected an answer but was uncomfortable with the silence hanging in the air. He turned to Moira and asked, “Are we almost there?”
“It’s just up ahead,” she replied.
They crossed the street, zigzagging through cars as they flew by. On the far side of the street they came upon the tracks for the streetcar. Seemingly unconcerned with the idea of being run down by one of the toy-train cars, Moira and Javier turned and walked along the tracks. Linc, on the other hand, had no desire to end up stuck in the undercarriage of the streetcar and kept glancing uneasily over his shoulder.
“You need to learn to relax,” Moira said, startling Linc.
“I’m cool,” Linc replied, resisting the overwhelming urge to look back. He thought he heard Javier snort, but when Linc looked over he was staring straight ahead.
“Right. If you’re cool as a cucumber, why do you look like you’re about to jump out of your skin every time you hear a noise?” Without warning, she put her hands on his shoulders. With a yelp, Linc jumped away and out of her grasp. He turned to face her, his hands involuntarily balling up into fists. “See, that’s what I’m talking about. I barely touch you and you freak out. Seriously, if you don’t relax you’re going to have a heart attack before you’re twenty five.”
“I’m fine,” he said, dropping he fists, but still shaking.
“If you say so, jumpy,” Javier chimed in.
“Whatever, we’re here now,” Moira added and stepped off of the tracks.
Linc looked over to his right at a spit of land that jutted out into the water. A series of park benches lined the waterfront and, at the far end, a bridge crossed over a small inlet off the lake. The park was deserted other than the three of them. With one last glance over his shoulder, Linc followed them into the park.
As the trio entered the park they passed a round, shallow pool of water about twenty feet in diameter. Linc was puzzled at the pool of still water, it wasn’t deep enough to swim in and he didn’t see any sort of fountain, and he couldn’t think what possible purpose it could serve. The pool, whatever its reason for existing, obviously wasn’t their destination as Moira and Javier kept on without a second glance. Instead, they headed towards a quartet of picnic tables that lined the shoreline. Moira leapt onto the first table she came to and sat down cross-legged. Javier threw himself down with a thump on the accompanying bench. Linc wasn’t sure what was expected of him so he just stood at the end of the table and goggled at the pair of them.
“Hop on up,” Moira said and patted the table in front of her.
“What are we doing?” Linc asked. He was finally unable to contain his bewilderment at their nighttime trek through Seattle. None of it made sense, not the escape from Genetitech, not the lackadaisical wandering afterwards, not his inability to hear their thoughts, and certainly not the hopping onto a picnic table in an empty park in the middle of the night. He didn’t know why sitting on a table should be the last straw, when it was the least weird development of the night, but it just was.
“Hop on up and I’ll tell ya,” Moira said, completely unfazed. Linc didn’t move. He knew he was being stubborn and irrational; he had followed them this far and it was silly to stop five feet from the finish line, but his patience was at an end. Moira could see that he was digging in his heals and so added, “I promise I’ll tell you everything.” Linc hesitated a moment longer.
“C’mon, we don’t have all night,” Javier said, letting his head roll back.
Linc looked around, they might have been the only three people in Seattle the park was so empty. Even the party at the restaurant was drowned out by the sound of the water. He knew there were no other options, if he wanted to get back into Genetitech, his only home now, he needed these two. Finally, he sighed and shuffled to the table.
Linc climbed onto the table with more difficulty than he would have liked and certainly more difficulty than should have been displayed by a man in his early twenties. His shins scraped against the edge of the table as he pulled himself up, but he had to swallow his exclamation of pain as he didn’t want to look even feebler than he already appeared. Once on the hard surface he copied Moira’s pose, his knees crying out from the strain of being forced bent underneath him. He looked up at Moira once he was situated. If she thought less of him after his display of physical ineptitude, her face did not betray it.
“I came over, now it’s your turn,” he said, his voice raspy.
She studied him for a moment, long enough that he thought she was going to renege on her promise but the she said, “A deal is a deal. What do you want to know first?”
He hadn’t quite expected her to be so forthright and he was so caught off guard that he couldn’t answer her. She studied his face while he grasped for his questions, which made it even harder to focus. He had never realized how disconcerting it was to have somebody stare at you, mostly because people normally went out of their way to avert their eyes from him.
“You can hear me, but I can’t hear you,” he blurted out at last, breaking the silence.
“Was that a question or do you have tourrettes?” Javier asked with a snicker.
“Uh,” Linc stammered, now even more flustered than he was before. Moira, for her part, didn’t even seem to notice that Javier had spoken. She just continued to watch Linc, her eyes dispassionate.
“I think,” Moira said, throwing him a lifeline, “what you meant to ask was ‘how come we can hear your thoughts, but you can’t hear ours?’ Am I right?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’s right,” he replied, grateful that she had bailed him out.
“So, why do you think that we can hear your thoughts, but you can’t hear ours?” She asked, raising Linc’s ire by answering a question with a question.
Although he was irritated he still pondered the matter. It didn’t help matters that the disrupter buzzed away in his pocket, making it difficult to concentrate and giving him the start of a headache. At first he wanted to demand that she just answer the question and to tell her he had no idea why he couldn’t hear her thoughts. But he knew that wasn’t precisely true. He thought back to earlier that day, to his meeting with Miss Finch. At first her voice had been so loud in his own head that he thought it would kill him, but then he had created that barrier, that mental wall, which had blocked her out. Maybe the same thing was possible in reverse; maybe he could build a mental wall to keep others from hearing his own thoughts.
“Is it like today?” he asked at last. “With Miss Finch?”
“Maybe, what did you do?” Moira asked and sounding genuinely interested what he had to say. He wished that she would just answer a simple question, but he went on to tell her about what had happened earlier and how he had blocked out the thoughts. At the end of his summation, she smiled knowingly at him.
“‘Mental wall’, that’s good,” she said, “right, Javier?”
“I guess,” Javier said. He didn’t look up from what he was doing, which as best as Linc could tell wasn’t much of anything.
“Javier and I call it ‘boxing out’. Like in basketball,” she added helpfully.
“I know what ‘boxing out’ is,” Linc replied, letting his irritation show.
“Sorry,” she replied, holding her hands up in a show of mock hurt. “Why don’t we give it a try, then? Turn off the disrupter and we’ll see what you’ve got.”
“Hold on just a second,” Linc said warily and glancing at Javier. He didn’t much like the thought of Moira in his head, but the thought of Javier picking through his thoughts made him sick to his stomach.
Moira must have caught his glance because she said, “Javier why don’t you hold the disrupter for a minute?”
“What? Why?” Javier’s head popped up, his brow furrowed.
“Because I asked you nicely,” she said.
“Fine. Hand it over.” He dropped back down and held his open hand up to Linc.
Linc took the little buzzing device out of his pocket and turned it over to Javier. As soon is it touched Javier’s skin, his fingers closed around it and he slumped back down on the bench. The buzzing wasn’t entirely gone, but was much fainter. Enough so that he felt unarmored against Moira’s penetrating mind. Other than his mind feeling less fuzzy, Linc didn’t notice a change right away. There was no reason that he should per se, but the moment was so dramatic that it called for…something. What that something should be Linc couldn’t say.
“You won’t feel anything,” Moira said, “otherwise people would notice when you heard their thoughts.”
Moira’s words caused the panic to set in again for Linc. There was no way for him to protect his inner most thoughts; it was like watching somebody rummage through your most personal possessions while you were tied to a chair.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Moira said, responding to his thoughts as if he had spoken them aloud. “I’m only listening to what you’re actively thinking right now. Don’t think about anything private and I won’t hear it.”
Linc concentrated on forcing his mind to go blank, but of course that only made the private thoughts and his darkest memories percolate to the surface. His secrets stampeded front and center and he mentally splayed out his arms and legs in attempt to stop them. All the nasty things his father had thought about him, the dark times in the psychiatric wards, all his many degradations, played in his mind like the worst horror movie ever.
“You need to calm your mind down, otherwise you will never be able to control your thoughts,” Moira instructed in a soothing tone normally reserved for small children.
“How do you expect me to do that, with you digging around in there, Yoda?” Linc snapped at her and he saw Javier’s head jerk up in interest. His only comfort was that disrupter was at least preventing Javier from pulling up a chair with a big tub of popcorn and enjoying the horror show playing through his mind.
“You need to set up that ‘mental wall’ you were telling us about. The only way you’ll be successful is if you clear your mind and concentrate. Whether or not I’m listening to your thoughts is beside the point,” Moira said. Her calm facade did not crack which annoyed Linc more than anything. “Being angry at me won’t help.”
“If you stopped talking, I might be able to focus,” Linc replied, contemplating stealing the disrupter back from Javier. He expected a retort, but Moira just continued to watch him.
He doubted that his mind had ever been clear, so that was a lost cause, so he decided his best course of action would be to focus on blocking Moira out. Even though he knew he had conjured a barrier around his mind earlier in the day, it still seemed an impossible task when asked to generate one on command. He closed his eyes, not so much to help with his concentration, but to hide from Moira’s probing eyes. Even with his own eyes closed, he could feel her watching him and judging his every inadequacy.
“If my eyes are bothering you, I can look away,” she said, in a tone that was clearly meant to be helpful, but was instead detrimental to his efforts. He didn’t respond, he didn’t need to, she obviously could read every little thought that popped in his head. Clearly his efforts to block her out so far were futile. Linc tried to let go, but he just couldn’t seem to manage it.
“Are we going to be done soon? I’m getting bored,” Javier chimed in. “Correction, I’m already bored.”
“Shhh,” Moira said, “You’re making Linc feel self-conscious.”
“If only I were his only problem,” Javier chimed in.
“I can’t do it,” Linc said, his shoulders falling in defeat. He let his head sag forward, wallowing in self-pity. He was a failure and might as well go back to using the disrupter to guard his thoughts against Javier and Moira, he clearly wasn’t going to be able to shut them out on his own.
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Moira said, “you’re not going to be able to get it right from the start. It took Javier and I weeks of practice to get it down. Right, Javier?”
“Yeah, whatever you say. Can we go now? He said he can’t do it,” Javier said, standing up and stretching. “I told you this was a waste of time. Maybe we can get back in time to catch Idol.”
“We’re not going yet, sit back down,” Moira said. Her voice was calm, but there was a resolve in it that Linc and Javier couldn’t help but obey.
“Fine,” Javier said with a sigh and dropped back down on the bench, making the whole table shudder.
“Linc, give it another try,” Moira said, leveling her gaze at him again.
Linc look back at her, his eyes pleading for a reprieve. All he wanted to do was give up on this hopeless endeavor, go crawl into a bed, and berate himself into he fell sleep. That was not to be, however, it was clear that Moira wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. She didn’t have to open her mouth, he didn’t even need to read her mind for real, he could tell just by looking at her that her steely resolve would easily overpower his desire to give in. He would have to give it an honest attempt, because she would absolutely know if he wasn’t putting forth his best effort.
‘Okay,’ he thought to himself and, conversely, to Moira, ‘here goes.’
She gave him a nod of approval, which he was sort of ambivalent about. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to concentrate his efforts with her watching, so he closed his eyes. Shutting her out made him feel better, more in control. She might be able to read his thoughts and bend him to her will, but at least he didn’t have to look at those eyes. At the very least he could go through the motions of clearing his mind. Maybe if he made it believable enough Moira would relent and they could all go home.
He inhaled deeply and focused on the sensation of his ribs expanding and collapsing, focused on his breath as it moved in and out like the tide. His heart thudded dully in his chest, clearly unaware of the gravity of the situation. At first he was keenly aware of the seconds ticking by, he wasn’t sure how long he needed to keep it up to make it appear to be a ‘real’ effort, but slowly his mind did let go. With each breath it became increasingly unmoored from the underpinnings of his neuroses, so much so that he could have just floated away.
He was surprised that he could so easily reach his point of release, but instead of dwelling on the fact he redirected his efforts on imagining a barrier around himself. In every direction, about two feet away, he pictured a translucent bubble. The barrier of his mind was both delicate but impenetrable. He pictured his thoughts being reflected back at him like x-rays bouncing off a lead shield, scattering into indecipherable chunks. There was no way for him to know for sure, but somehow he could sense it was working. He was filled with a vigor and strength that he hadn’t experienced, well, ever. For the first time he was in control and he liked it.
“Boooring,” Javier declared and Linc’s bubble burst like a soap bubble poked by a finger, exploding his sense of control with it.
Linc opened his eyes again and was almost surprised to see that Moira was still sitting in front of him, crossed legged, and watchful as before. Her expression didn’t betray any emotion and so he continued to be unsure of his level of success. To his left Javier was now on his feet and he was shifting side-to-side, clearly ready to move on. He didn’t appear too thrilled to be excluded from Linc and Moira’s little party.
“Well?” Linc asked, unable to wait any longer for her assessment.
“I think you were onto something until you were interrupted.” She gave a sideways look to Javier, who didn’t appear to care, it seemed he was more interested in his fingernails. “I could still hear your thoughts, but they were muffled, like hearing somebody talking on the other side of a wall. With some practice you should be fine.”
Linc instantly was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Relieved because he made something happen, but disappointed that he hadn’t blocked her out entirely. There was also the question of how long he could keep it up, even if he did manage to conjure a more impervious barrier. It had taken all of his efforts to erect the porous wall and it had been knocked down by one surly comment from Javier. Maintaining the barrier with his attention divided in a crowded room would be near impossible.
“Come on, let’s head back, we’re not going to get any more done tonight,” Moira said. “You’ll feel better with some rest.”
“Finally,” Javier said and tossed the disrupter back to Linc before striding off. Linc barely had time to snatch the earpiece out of the air before it could whiz by his head and into the water.
“He’s a real charmer,” he observed as he slipped the disrupter back in his pocket.
“You’ve got to get to know him, he’s a good guy deep down,” Moira replied with no trace of irony. She climbed down from the table and Linc followed close behind.
“Must be real deep,” Linc observed.
“Your not the only one who’s been through a lot. None of us had it easy, Javier just has a different way of showing it,” she said.
“What’s he been through?” Linc asked, skeptical that Javier’s past could justify his obnoxious behavior.
“That’s his story to tell, not mine,” Moira said, more or less ending the conversation.
Javier, who was apparently lost in his own thoughts, was already ten paces ahead of them and didn’t appear to hear their conversation. Moira, who must have been comfortable with the silence, didn’t offer any conversation. In any social situation, Linc felt that lack of conversation must reflect poorly on him, so the silence made his palms sweat. He cast about for subjects for small talk, but could only come up with big topics to discuss. With few other options, he decided that he might as well press on the big topics.
“So,” Linc ventured, unsure if they were at the Q&A portion of the evening.
“So, what?” Moira replied, her voice inviting enough to encourage Linc to proceed.
“How long have you been with Genetitech?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m with Genetitech,” Moira said. Before he could ask what she meant, she continued, “But to answer your question, six years.”
”Six years? That’s longer than I expected.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Javier, who had slowly been drifting back towards them, asked in the tone of a petulant child. Linc’s immediate thought was, ‘none of your business,’ and so was glad he had the disrupter to block his thoughts from Javier.
“How long we’ve been at Genetitech,” Moira replied.
“Oh, I’ve been around for two years now,” Javier said without being asked. Linc was annoyed that he had butted into the conversation although, rationally, he knew he should be getting as much information as possible on both of them.
“Has it been two years already?” Moira asked.
“Crazy, right?” Javier responded. “Because this fall will be our third Halloween together.”
“Halloween, right,” Moira said with a malevolent giggle.
“What’s with Halloween?” Linc asked, hoping to regain some control of the conversation.
“We’re just big on the ‘trick’ half of the trick or treat equation,” Moira said and she shared a knowing smile. This seemed to be a private joke that he wasn’t meant to be a part of, so Linc let it drop without comment. It wasn’t really that important anyways, as much as he longed to be included he wanted his questions answered more.
“And how did you and Genetitech get hooked up?” Linc asked.
“Huh?” Moira asked, having lost the thread of his inquiry. “Oh, yeah, they just found me I guess.”
“Just found you? But how did they find you?” This was what had really been nagging at Linc: he didn’t understand how a company, or government agency, or whatever, had sprung up overnight to take in a teenage telepathic girl. It just didn’t make sense.
“I don’t know how they found me, really. I had a psychiatrist who figured out that I wasn’t schizophrenic and they just showed up one day at my house.” She said it like it made the most sense in the world for random psychic wranglers to show up at your front door.
“What did your parents think about that? Them just showing up and saying you were telepathic.” Linc was getting frustrated that he couldn’t make her see that the whole situation was bizarre.
“It was just me and my mom,” Moira said, “and I think she was kind of glad that they wanted to take me away. She wasn’t what you’d call a real maternal type. Plus, even if she didn’t totally believe that I was telepathic, she knew something was weird with me. My weirdness kind of put a damper on her lifestyle, so she was happy to see me go. And the feeling was mutual.”
She shrugged and Linc could tell that she was done with her story. It was good timing anyways as they had arrived back at the Genetitech building.
“Home, sweet home,” Javier said.
They didn’t talk much as they snuck back in, Linc in the trail position again. They slipped past the cameras, on the lookout for the night janitor as they progressed. He must have completed his work while they were out, because the floors were shiny clean, but there was no sign of him. They said their good nights and returned to their respective rooms. Only Linc had no intention of going to sleep yet.