A Queer Condition
Caffeine: A slightly addictive stimulant drug found in some plants, used to temporarily reduce drowsiness. Also known to cause psychic abilities in a certain girl.
“I hate being a girl!”
To emphasize my sincerity, I punished my shoes for existing by throwing them across the room.
“Easy on the shoes, dear. They aren’t responsible for your gender.”
I curled up on my bed, and the girlfriend combed my hair with her fingers. “I’m glad you’re a girl,” she said.
I sat up and sniffed. “Everything sucks. Except you and Beardy. And pizza, I still like pizza.”
“I’m sorry about your parents.”
“And I’m sorry I’m a freak.”
She leaned back on her elbows and grinned. “I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
“Why can’t they at least accept that I’m a freak and get over it? I don’t understand why they think it’s so important to fix me. If I wanted to be fixed I’d have a tubectomy. And can you imagine if they knew about the caffeine thing? My mom would become apocalyptic!”
I groaned. “No, she would literally instigate the apocalypse.”
“Just because you have psychic abilities?”
“Because magic is evil and there’s no such thing as psychics, just witchcraft and demonic power.”
I huffed. “At least if I was male, my sexual preference wouldn’t be a reason to disown me.”
She stood up and pulled me out of bed. “That’s it, time to quit moping.”
“I don’t want to,” I whined. But she dragged me out of the room and downstairs, and shoved my purple trench coat into my arms.
“Put on your superhero outfit, love.”
In my town, people don’t ask ‘who was that masked man?’, or ‘who was that blur of justice?’ It’s more like, ‘who was that nerdy hyperactive girl in the purple coat?’
The answer, of course, is nobody important. I’m not a caped crusader for good. I’m not heroic or selfless or anything like that. I’m just a strange girl with a queer condition.
The girlfriend and I walked into the coffee shop where I first discovered my abilities, and we ordered a matching pair of lattes. After receiving my cup of scalding superhero juice, I parked my butt in a corner booth and she sat across from me, with the sun shining through her short, tousled hair.
One tiny sip of the latte burned my tongue so I took the lid off and blew on it.
“You look so intense when you drink your coffee,” the girlfriend said. “I love it.”
I smiled and tested the liquid again, and found it to be just barely on the verge of scalding. Good enough.
The silent voices of the people whispered louder the more I drank. Initially I’d been overwhelmed by the thoughts of everyone around me, but after months of practice I learned how to let in only what I wanted to hear. When the caffeine fully kicked in, I focused on my companion and heard her thoughts.
Just look at her. The most beautiful person I know. They have no idea what they’re missing.
My cheeks turned warm. I closed my eyes and slipped into the mind of the only person who knew me almost as well as I knew everyone. This was my safe place, where the raucous world faded and her soul enfolded mine.
Her life hummed all around me, flashes of thoughts and memories and emotions. I lost any sense of having a body when I was entirely inside another person’s head; being in her mind was like floating in a quiet hot tub—the closest I ever got to not being hyperactive or buzzing with anxiety.
How do you stay so calm all the time? I asked. I know everything about you and I still can’t figure it out.
Neither can I, it’s just now I am.
I remained in her mind for a while. Hard to tell how long because time passes there like it does in dreams. Then a touch on the arm of my absent body hitched me back to reality, and I gasped as the blinding rush of another mind tore through my own. The calm shattered in flashes of color and angry shouts. I landed on the floor and briefly broke contact with the invader, but in an instant I was grabbed again and lifted into the air.
My vision cleared and I stared at the girlfriend, trying to process everything. Strong arms around my middle, holding me with my feet several inches off the floor. They belonged to the man whose mind I had just downloaded into my own.
The frightened chatter of silent people. Four other men with rifles and pistols and greedy thoughts, keeping the people silent. A panel truck blocking the sun.
And my safe-haven standing with her fists clenched and an angry jaw.
Don’t, I said to her. But of course she didn’t listen.
Her knee came up as she spun around, nailing one of the men in the nuts before he could react. His gun dropped and she took it without pause, hit him in the face with the butt, and used the momentum to continue spinning until she faced me again, aiming the rifle at my captor.
“Hey now, put the weapon down,” he said.
Listen to the scary dude…
“First put the harmless nerd down.” She glanced at the other three men and their weapons, but didn’t flinch.
He laughed and held me up a bit higher, so his breath tickled the back of my neck. “She’s far from harmless, miss.”
“So am I.”
A dizzy spell made my vision flash, and I squinted through the glare. One of the other men took aim with his pistol. He pulled the trigger, blood sprayed, and the girlfriend fell.
“No, stop!” I shrieked.
My captor moved toward the door, and finally the girlfriend set the rifle on our table, spilling her latte. I’m sorry, she thought.
Not your fault.
The man with the pistol relaxed and I shuddered. Thank goodness for clairvoyance.
One of them shoved a rag in my face and said, “Take a whiff of this.”
Gotta get up for work, the alarm didn’t go off…no wait, I’m dreaming. It’s still night. But why is it so bright?
I woke to a small flashlight shining directly into my eye. A shout caught in my throat and made an undignified squeak instead, and I tried to reach up to shove the light away but my arms were tied down. My coat and shoes and sweater had been taken.
“I hope you didn’t wreck my purple coat,” I mumbled.
The flashlight switched off and I jumped when the sour face of a wrinkled old man filled my vision, large and very dark. Despite his apparent age, the stubble on his chin and the healthy plume of curly hair on his head showed no hint of gray. He wore jeans and a sagging old leather jacket. We had a short staring contest until I blinked.
“Please tell me my girlfriend is okay,” I whispered.
He licked his dry lips. “My men say they hurt no one at the café. Their orders were to cause no damage, and they always follow orders.”
We stared a little longer. The caffeine had worn off, so all I got was a sense the guy was trying to drill into my mind with his own.
“I know who you are,” I said. “In fact I know quite a lot about you and your violent buddies.”
“Do you now?”
I glared. He countered with a terrifying scowl in which his black eyebrows turned into little horns.
“I’m a psychic, duh.” My voice shook.
“I know that,” he said.
“And how do you know? I didn’t go around telling everyone ‘hey, I get psychic when I drink coffee.’ That would be dumb because it causes things like this.” I jerked at the ropes binding my arms to the metal chair I sat in. “I prefer not to be experimented on, thanks.”
“Nobody here will experiment on you.”
“You’re a scientist, this is your lab, what the heck else are you gonna do? Poke me with a test tube?”
Without a word he took a test tube out of his pocket and poked my chest with it.
“Okay man, you’re officially creeping me out. I mean beyond the typical creepiness of being abducted and tied up.”
He rubbed his forehead. “I apologize for the abductive nature of your arrival here.”
“Secrecy is paramount. For example, the man whose mind you absorbed had fake memories. I gave them to him in case the acquisition proved unsuccessful—in case you got away after taking in all his memories.” He leaned in so close I could smell a hint of alcohol on his breath.
“Oh my gosh.”
“One, I am really freaked out and I think you’re a madman. Two, I’ve gotta pee.”
He scratched his chin and produced a switchblade from the pocket of his jacket. “Yes, I think I am a madman. There’s no getting around that. But I’m the madman you need right now, even though you don’t know it.”
I winced as he stooped over me, but he merely cut the ropes, put away his knife, and took my hand to help me up.
“The restroom is out the door and to the left,” he said, gesturing at the door between two towering pieces of equipment that looked like they came out of an airport control tower. “Don’t try to run, we are far underground and my violent buddies are guarding the stairway.”
I swear I saw a hint of a smile on his severe face. Keeping my eyes on him, I backed away and then darted for the door. It opened to a narrow hallway with concrete walls; to the right, maybe fifty feet away, the man who nearly shot my girlfriend leaned against the wall smoking a cigar. On my left, the hall terminated in a single door with a paper sign that read ‘Humans’. A picture above the word depicted a generic human figure on a toilet.
“Okay,” I whispered to myself. “This can’t get any weirder.”
I did my business on the cold, grimy toilet seat, and then went back and peered into the room where the old man waited for me. He sat in the chair, bouncing his foot and whistling a tune that sounded old. I stepped inside, but left the door ajar and remained near it.
“I want you to explain exactly why you brought me here,” I said.
“Or I’ll…I don’t know, bite you or something. I’m not helpless without coffee.”
He nodded once. “The story of why you are here now begins when you were barely a year old. Did your parents ever tell you that you are adopted?”
I plopped down on the floor and stared at him. “Mister, I think if I’m gonna believe this story, I’ll need some caffeine.”
The old man shuffled to a refrigerator in the corner and got me a bottled iced coffee, then returned to his seat. I guzzled half of the drink and held my abilities back for a moment. I could just dive into his mind and learn everything at once, but I thought it might be easier to process if I took it a bit at a time.
He grunted. “May I continue?”
“Go for it.”
As he spoke, I let just enough of his thoughts through to be sure that he told the truth. I could sense the rest of his mind, looming behind his words, and it seemed far more massive than a typical person’s. Maybe I’d go insane if I touched him and downloaded all of it.
“I found you and your twin brother in a foster home. I took—”
“Oh my gosh, wait. I have a brother?”
“Do you want to hear the story or ask dumb questions?”
I shut my mouth.
“I took you two for testing. I know, I know—I was a despicable man. Many years have passed and I’m trying to make up for my sins.
“For a very long time I tried to awaken psychic abilities like yours. I had a few near successes but they always failed somehow. At last I made a breakthrough, and the government gave me funding. I made huge advances in my research. But I took shortcuts and they became suspicious. So I acquired this underground facility and started transferring my work. I didn’t get far when I heard I might be losing everything. That was when I found you, two years old and unloved.
“Time was running out for me. My tests were deemed unsafe and even though I’d succeeded in the initial ones on rats, they decided to pull the plug. Said it was too dangerous to move on to human testing. You and your brother were the only chance I had to finally bring my research to fulfillment.
“I took you two and opened your minds and gave you the abilities that you’ve recently discovered. The success made me reckless, and they caught me. I only recently got out of prison.”
He leaned back and closed his eyes, and I just sat and stared.
“You made me,” I whispered. “You made me a freak.”
One bloodshot eye popped open. “No, I tried to give you a gift. I brought you here because there are two flaws in your abilities and one of them is very serious. The first one is, of course, that they are naturally inhibited until the central nervous system is stimulated by a drug, such as caffeine. And…”
He trailed off, staring at the wall.
“After many years, they have a degenerative effect whether you use them or not. If I cannot remove your abilities, they will kill you within a year.”
I paced the room, while the old man watched me from the chair in the center. The caffeine wore off and I didn’t really feel like drinking more, after this latest piece of news. I knew he told the truth.
“You’re saying I have a brother,” I said at last, “and that he has the same abilities that I have?”
“If he’s still alive, then yes.”
“But you don’t know where he is.”
“I couldn’t track him down. He went to a different family than you did, and then another, and the trail disappeared.”
“And I’m going to die…”
“Not if I can help you.”
“Well can you?”
“Before I answer, I need to scan your brain and take a blood sample and run some tests. It may take me months to figure out how to save you.”
I turned to face him, fists clenched. “Dangit mister, why? Why’d you even do this in the first place?”
His mouth became a solid horizontal line and he rose to his feet. “I had my reasons,” he muttered. “And you were wise not to venture deeper into my mind than you did. Should I attempt to save your life or not?”
“Yes…yes please. But what about my brother? If he’s still alive, then he’ll die if we don’t find him, right?”
“He is beyond my help.. I tried to find him and I failed, even with my great talents and resources.”
I bit my lip. “Okay, do your brain scan thingy and tests and stuff and then let me go. Tell me everything about your efforts to find him, and I’ll pick up the search. I’ll try to find my brother so you can save him too.”
He leaned in close, staring again, and then gave a slight nod. “I will let you go while I work on the solution, but if you tell anyone about me I will disappear and you will die.”
“Uh, yeah, our special little secret.” I stuck up my little finger. “Promise with my pinky or whatever you do to make it official.”
He turned and headed for the door, waving for me to follow. I did, out the door and a few yards down the hallway to another door that opened into a well-lighted room. An MRI machine stood there, along with more equipment I couldn’t identify.
I swallowed. The old man had told me the truth—he really was trying to help me—and yet somewhere in the dangerous expanse of his consciousness I thought I might find another motive. There was more to this story than he shared with me.
“Lie down on the bed of the scanner,” he said. “Make sure you have no metal on you.”
I looked at the ring on my finger, the only piece of jewelry I ever wore. “Don’t lose this,” I said as I took it off and handed it to him.
When I walked through the door, my large hirsute friend was there with a couple police officers, and the girlfriend sat on my favorite armchair with tearstained cheeks. They all looked at me.
“Um, hi,” I said.
The girlfriend launched herself across the room and wrapped me in a bruising hug. “Oh dear, I thought you were gone. I thought they were going to experiment on you.”
I poked her and extracted myself from her long arms. “No, turns out my fears of being studied for the purpose of creating caffeine-powered supersoldiers remain unfounded in reality.”
“Who were they? Why did they take you, and how did you escape?”
I glanced at the police officers, and their pens that hovered over pocket-sized notebooks. “Uh…human traffickers, for the purpose of human trafficking, and…I ran away?”
The girlfriend frowned but I poked her again and she got the idea.
“Miss, if you could come to the station with us, we’d like to get an official statement from you and begin an investigation—”
I shook my head. “No. I’m fine. I didn’t really see anything useful.”
“Yeah. Thanks anyway.”
The police officers gave me confused looks but they shook our hands and left. Once they were gone I flopped onto the couch and groaned.
“What is going on?” Beardy asked.
“Dude, my life is so weird.”
They sat in armchairs and stared at me. Waiting.
“I don’t know how much I should say.”
“Are they threatening you?” the girlfriend asked.
“Not really. Ugh, it’s complicated. Okay, so I met this weird old guy and found out I’m adopted and he’s the scientist who messed with my brain when I was a tiny kid. He gave me the psychic abilities.”
“Are you serious or is this another fake story like the human trafficking one?”
“I’m so serious. And you can’t tell anyone, please please don’t tell anyone because the freaky part is that my abilities are killing me and he’s trying to figure out how to save my life and if he gets spooked, he’ll disappear and I’ll die, and I have a brother who has the same abilities and he’ll die too if I can’t find him.”
I took a deep breath and for a moment there was silence.
“Okay, wow,” our large roommate said. “That’s…I don’t even know.”
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” I moaned.
The girlfriend moved to the couch and I curled up by her side. “You’re sure the old man told the truth?” she asked.
“Definitely almost sure. I mean he gave me coffee so I could hear his thoughts and know it was the truth. But his brain is huge. He could have hidden things from me. In fact I know he did.”
“You trust him, though?”
“As far as knowing he is truly trying to save my life, yes. Which, given the situation, is enough for me. I don’t want to die!”
Beardy leaned forward. “In case you were wondering, I don’t want you to die either.”
“Yes, I figured. Will you help me find my brother so he doesn’t die either?”
“Of course. Whatever you need.”
I really didn’t need the added stress on top of finding out I was dying. But I had that mythical sense of ‘had to do it’ like the grim action heroes get in the movies. So I stood outside my parents’ locked door, staring through the ornate frosted glass at the home I couldn’t return to.
Then mom opened the door with a face almost as frosty as the glass.
“Hey,” I said with a bit of a choking sound.
“I just found out I’m adopted.”
Her mouth twitched.
“It’s true, then?”
“I wish it wasn’t,” she said. “Maybe then you wouldn’t be…”
“A lesbian? You can’t even say the word.”
“I thought I raised you right.”
My eyes stung. “Mom, I don’t want to do this again.”
“You should’ve thought of that before you made this choice.”
“What, the choice to be myself?”
She huffed. “Why did you come here? You have a problem with being adopted? Would you rather have been aborted?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
Maybe she wouldn’t care. No reason to let her down any more than I already had.
“I just wanted to make sure it was true.” Swallowing couldn’t relieve the ache in my throat. “And since it is, I guess maybe that’ll make this easier.”
I guess that explains why you don’t love me.
Without another word I turned and walked away. Somehow I had a pinprick of hope that she would call me back, say she was sorry, that she really did love me.
The door slammed shut behind me and that killed the hope.
I made my way home at a slow trudge. Shouldn’t have gone to see her. So what if I was adopted? It hardly mattered anymore.
When I got home I wiped my eyes and said nothing of the visit with my mother.
We began the search for my brother with researching the foster home the old man told me about. The place no longer existed, and he had already followed all the leads we could think of, so instead we took a different approach. The girlfriend had a family member at the local FBI office, and after a large amount of pleading, we convinced him to run a search on my brother’s name, and to run my DNA to see if he could find a family match in their database.
The name search turned up eleven matches in the country with the same birth date. Still waiting for DNA results, I took the list of possible brothers home and started calling them.
The first guy answered the phone with a raspy voice and slurred consonants. I could almost smell the alcohol. But not really because phones hadn’t yet gained smell transmitting technology.
“I just have a quick question for you, sir, if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead’n ax me.” The sound of a beard being scratched filled my ear.
“Did you grow up in foster homes? I’m looking for my brother, didn’t even know he existed until recently so I’m calling everyone with the same name and birth date that I can find.”
“I growed up with ma and pa on ther farm.”
“Okay thanks sorry to bother you goodbye.”
I hung up and stared at my shaking hands. “Stupid phones,” I muttered. Almost as bad as talking to my mother. But I took a deep breath and continued, and it got easier.
The next half hour was a string of fruitless phone calls—although there was a pleasant conversation about vegetables with one young man from the west coast who tried to ask me out for some fine hipster dining. I declined.
At the end of it I only had two people left on my list who hadn’t answered my calls. The girlfriend came home from work and brought me chocolate, so I kissed her and it turned into an all-out facebattle that raged right into the bedroom and that was the end of investigations for the day.
I awoke to sunshine and a stupid bird flying into the window repeatedly. I think it died or at least figured out what was going on because it stopped after one last terrific thud.
The girlfriend rolled over and moaned.
“Good morning,” I said.
“I had an awful dream,” she mumbled. “You died and…it was far too vivid.”
She brushed a tangled lock of hair out of her face. Her cheeks had some red lines thanks to her habit of rolling up in her quilt like a sexy burrito and sleeping on her face. I never understood how she could breathe like that.
“I’ll survive for you,” I said.
“I know you will.”
But she couldn’t really know that. I didn’t need my coffee powers to see what was going through her mind. How helpless she felt. It’s one thing to kick a real attacker in the nuts. A simple problem with a straightforward solution. Rogue psychic powers don’t have testicles to smash. Things get so much more complicated when your own mind is imploding on itself.
My phone blasted a tinny rendition of my favorite song and I snatched it from the nightstand. It showed me a number I vaguely recognized.
The voice on the other end sounded weary. An older woman with a long backstory. “You called yesterday,” she said.
“Yes. That was me.”
“The man you called about died last month. I was just going through his belongings and found his phone.”
We exchanged a brief silence during which I got a questioning eyebrow quirk from the girlfriend. I shook my head. She shrugged. I frowned.
“He was a good friend of ours,” the woman said.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. Would you be able to tell me what you know of his past?”
“He never shared much. Came into town broke and quiet a few years ago, and he left it just as quietly but he didn’t die alone. Did you know him? I didn’t quite get what you were asking about in the message.”
“I’m trying to find my brother. Would you…do you maybe have anything that could provide a DNA sample?”
She sighed and I hated having to ask the question.
“No, I understand,” she said. “He’s been cremated but I came across his comb. There are a few strands of hair on it. Give me your address and I’ll mail them to you.”
“Thank you, so much.”
“It’s all right, dear. I hope you find your brother.”
After giving her my information, I hung up and plunked the phone back on the nightstand.
“What is it, love?”
“If that guy was my brother, he’s dead. Some lady called back and she’s sending hair from his comb for DNA testing.”
“That’s nice of her.”
I crawled into bed and cuddled up to the girlfriend. “This is exhausting. Being a superhero, then suddenly the stress of dying, and trying to find my long-lost brother before I die. It sounds like I’m living in a comic book.”
“I had a thought,” she said in her quiet voice.
I perked up because the quiet-voice thoughts were often the best things in the world.
“You’re a psychic, your brother is a psychic. You’re twins. Even non-psychic twins have a level of mental connection…what if you could find your brother with your mind?”
I sat upright and flung the blanket away. “That’s brilliant. Why didn’t I think of it? I love you.”
We thundered downstairs, startling our bearded landlord as he enjoyed his famously delicious pancakes.
“Hey,” he said, deadpan as ever. “Feel like consuming some breakfast before you finish demolishing the house?”
“I just need coffee,” I blurted, as I snatched the carafe from beside him.
I poured a mug and tested the temperature. Wasn’t too hot, so I guzzled it.
The effects hit me hard and I wasn’t quite prepared for it, still a bit sleepy. I lost control and images of the near future spun around me, the others’ thoughts rushed in, and I doubled over feeling sick. In all the confusion, my mind latched onto one terrifying thought. I’m dying.
The girlfriend supported me and took me to the couch. Her spoken words sounded distant, but her thoughts shouted in my mind. What’s wrong? This hasn’t happened before. Are you okay? Should I call a doctor?
I forced the clairvoyant images away, and focused on her. I’m fine, just too tired to handle all of this right now. Should’ve waited.
She held me, and slowly I regained control. I sighed and sat up, closing my eyes and focusing on my own mind.
Calm down. Breathe. You aren’t dying just yet.
“Didn’t look like it. Looked like you were in shock.”
I leaned against the girlfriend and slipped into her mind. We sat quietly for a moment, and then she reminded me of the mission.
“Right. Find my brother. I’m not sure how to begin.”
“Don’t ask me, I’m making wild guesses based on fictional stories.”
“So I should reach out and try to feel his presence.”
“Sounds appropriately fictional.”
“Here I go then…”
I expanded what I called my “listening range”, the radius outside of which I couldn’t hear people’s thoughts. This was the first time I’d actually tried to make it bigger, rather than limiting it. I’d always been concerned with making it smaller so my brain didn’t explode.
I felt the presence of everyone in my neighborhood, and tried to block out their thoughts. My reach expanded to cover the entire city and the cacophony of thoughts pushed against my walls.
Still I reached farther, and the exhilaration of it gave me a rush of energy. I imagined watching from above as my power reached out, and I felt the distance to every mind I touched. My heart pounded as I drew a map of consciousness across the country.
The farther I went, the harder it was to feel connected to myself. My mind wasn’t just inside my body anymore. I felt a twinge of fear and several voices broke through.
One of them was the girlfriend’s. Hey, can you hear me? This is worrying. You seem to have passed out.
I shot her a quick reply. I’m okay, can’t chat now.
Somehow I reached the coastlines. The silence beyond felt like the freedom beyond a cage. Between those bars, the entire population of the country laughed and cried and slept and shouted. And my body was nowhere to be found.
A jolt of fear rippled through the people. My own fear, infecting them like a virus. Some panicked and their own emotions trickled back into me, some stood firm and fought.
I didn’t know what would happen if I lost control. Would I pass out and wake up in my own body again? Would I get lost out here? In the vastness of the multitude I’d lost my own body, but I felt that it wasn’t important.
What if I could put my mind into another body?
Maybe death was no longer a concern.
Or maybe I was losing touch with reality and my consciousness was still firmly attached to my physical body.
The fear passed and I calmed myself. I calmed everyone. Now how would I find my brother? One person in three hundred million…surely another psychic mind would recognize my influence.
Unless he hadn’t had caffeine recently. Of course. We wouldn’t be able to make that connection without both being psychic.
I took a different approach. If I could affect everyone with an emotion, surely I could give them all a thought.
My composure slipped and I blanked out for a moment. What am I doing?
All across the country, people momentarily forgot what they were doing.
I remembered and pulled myself back from them again. An idea took shape. My face, my name, and my address. My brother’s last known name and the words I need you.
I pulled the idea together and released it. Everyone in the country thought the same thing at the same moment, and everyone in the country responded with confusion, except four. Beardy, the girlfriend, a certain old man, and…
I’d never felt darkness so comfortable. It was silent and warm, not the immense cold silence of empty space. What is this place?
The better question, though: Who am I? What other sorts of darkness are there?
A pinprick of light flashed into existence and I stared as it grew bigger. Then it hit me, a thought from another mind.
Are you in there?
At first I fought, instinctively. It was a virus, invading my space. But it held on.
Don’t fight, we’re trying to help you.
The thoughts carried anxiety. I think I’m your brother.
Who am I?
The brother replied with a name that felt both familiar and foreign at the same time. Like déjà vu.
What is déjà vu?
Maybe it’s feeling your own presence without knowing anything about it. Familiarity with something forgotten.
Wake up, please.
So I was asleep?
Another sensation reached me, a stifling pressure and an urgent pull. Breathe.
I had to breathe. With what?
Cool relief rushed in. Air. Lungs.
Sound and touch and sight came with it. I gasped for the air, trying to understand why I needed it.
“She’s awake,” someone said.
A hand grabbed mine. I had hands. In fact I had an entire body.
“Oh love, you just about died.”
I blinked in the burning light. “Who am I?"
She cried and tears dripped on my arm. “You don’t remember?”
A young man stood by my shoulder. He was the déjà vu, the brother, the unfamiliar family.
“You talked to my mind,” I said.
He stooped over me and touched my forehead. “You talked to my mind first.”
The girl who held my hand replied. “You used your psychic abilities to find him, a week ago. You’ve been in a coma ever since.”
A doctor walked in at just the right moment to hear “psychic” and he frowned. “Excuse me,” he said. “I need everyone who isn’t a patient to exit the room.”
“We’re all patient,” the brother said.
“Not what I meant.”
The woman kissed me and the brother said he would stay in my mind to help if I needed it. They left the room and the doctor took my pulse.
“How do you feel?”
“Vast and empty and very small. Much bigger on the inside. Also the lights are too bright.”
“At least you can speak,” he muttered, and scribbled something down on a paper. “What do you remember?”
“The most comfortable silent blackness.”
“Interesting. Anything before that?”
“I know things but I don’t remember them. Or maybe it’s the other way around.”
He sat in a chair and leaned close to me. “I need you to try to understand me. There is a growth in your brain—it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. I need to perform surgery to remove it, but it’s very risky.”
“You will likely die.”
“Does that mean I will go back to the comfortable blackness?”
He sighed. “No, it means you end.”
“I know what dying is, silly. But what about my mind?”
The doctor scratched his nose and said “huh” and looked at his scribbles.
This doctor doesn’t know how to help you, the brother’s voice says. Your girlfriend told me all about what is happening. We need to leave here and find the one person who can help.
“I’d like to leave.”
“What? No, no, you can’t do that. You just awoke from a week-long coma.”
I tossed the blankets aside and pulled out the IV needle and slid out of the bed on the opposite side from him. He jumped up and blocked my way, tried to grab me to put me back in the bed.
I touched his forehead. “Go to sleep.”
He collapsed on the floor.
The brother and the girl came running. She stared at the doctor and asked, “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
The brother put his long coat around me. “We need to leave now.”
They hurried me out of the building to a car. I stared at my hands, and my companions tried to talk to me but I just wanted to figure out how I made the doctor go to sleep.
“How do we find this old man?” the brother asked.
“I think the plan was for him to find us when he figured out how to save her,” the girlfriend said.
“But we need him now! Did you see those x-rays? I went in and got some of my own head. Hers is ten times worse.”
“It must have been triggered by her effort to find you. I can’t even imagine what she went through to do that.”
I touched the girlfriend’s arm and whispered, “Say I love you.”
Her mouth moved with mine and said the words at the exact same time. She jerked away, her eyes wide. “Stop the car," she said.
The brother pulled over and she jumped out on the side of the road. She stomped the ground and pulled her hair and screamed, and then stopped, staring at me, chest heaving, eyes angry. Then she climbed in the front of the car and we drove on in silence.
We stopped at a house and they took me inside. The girlfriend sat in the farthest chair from me, and the brother paced back and forth.
“We can’t wait,” he muttered, “but we can’t find him. Maybe we could help her remember…”
“I can’t do this,” the girlfriend whispered. She shook her head and walked out of the house.
The brother followed her.
Images filled my mind as I slept. Are these memories? Who is the happy person in the purple trench coat? I feel like I know her.
Then I saw a mirror, and I was her. But how?
The brother was there, in my dream.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked.
“Same way I talked to your mind. We both have these abilities. You’ve forgotten.”
“I saw a girl with a purple coat, and she was me, but the things she did aren’t in my head.”
“You saw her in here?”
“Everything in here is inside your head. Those were memories. Why can’t you connect them to yourself and remember?”
I had no answer. The girl was myself, but she wasn’t me.
“Did you see the old man who can help you? Maybe you could remember something to help us find him.”
“Her memories are confused. So far away…”
He sighed. “I want to help, I just don’t know how.”
“You have powers, can’t you find the old man?”
“I could…maybe. It’s worth a try. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“No. Please. Can you stay with me? The darkness isn’t warm anymore. There is fear and pain out there, somewhere. I saw it in the memories.”
“Of course I can stay.” He took my dream-hand and we sat in a gigantic bean-bag chair. I imagined an ocean beach and there it was, with the salty wind and swirls of sand and warm sunshine.
The brother picked up a baby turtle and laid it in my hand.
A flash of purple caught my eye and the girl ran by on a city street. The ocean was gone, peace replaced with chaos.
I hunched on the concrete, shivering in the rain. People walked by with umbrellas and none of them saw me. The purple coat flashed among the crowd across the street and I watched her go into a coffee shop.
“There you are!” His voice was short of breath and he put his long coat around me. “I’ve been looking for you for hours.”
“Fake hours,” I muttered.
He pulled me into tiny New Age shop that smelled of fragrant smoke and organic coffee. A wrinkled old man stood behind the counter and he held me in his gaze.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
I shrugged out of the coat, suddenly warm and entirely dry.
“We are looking for her memories,” the brother said.
“I do believe I am one of them.”
The man held out a hand to me. Not an old man’s hand, but the sturdy, smooth, and leathery hand of a young man who worked hard.
“I have a secret for you,” he said, leaning over without a hint of emotion on his face.
Black eyebrows moved a fraction of an inch closer together.
“I’m not part of your dreaming imagination. I’m as real as both of you.”
“You’re the old man,” my brother said. “We need your help!”
“That is why I am here.” He looked at me. “Reach into my mind.”
“The same way you made the doctor fall asleep.”
I imagined seeing into his mind, and then in a rush he was inside mine. I tried to release his hand but there were no hands, no bodies. No more city and no incense.
Just an endless expanse of darkness, and then light.
The memories filled me until I thought I couldn’t take any more, and they kept coming. I screamed, but no one answered.
I tried to retreat but every corner was full. Icy cold shame in one, blazing anger in another.
“Stop it,” I whimpered. “Stop.”
A name echoed faintly in the chaos. The name of the girl in the purple coat. My name.
“Wake up,” said a voice.
“Stop. Make it stop.”
“You’re dreaming. You’ll be okay.”
I couldn’t get out.
Then I woke up.
The brother held me and I became aware of a floor, a wall, tears in my eyes.
“What happened?” I choked on the words.
“I don’t know.”
He held me and I rocked back and forth. A hurricane of memories and images and emotions roared through my mind, gradually weakening in its overwhelming intensity.
“I remember,” I whispered.
“What do you remember?”
“Me. Myself. Everything.” I took a sharp breath and held it.
“Oh my gosh.”
“I found you.”
I pushed away from him and stood up. He rose slowly. Faint pre-dawn light illuminated his face and the tree outside the window cast dancing shadows.
I rubbed my eyes and the last few memories fell into place.
“Everyone in the country was in my head. I got scared, and everyone got scared. I forgot what I was doing, and everyone forgot. So I sent an idea as a message for you.”
“I got the message. It felt like a random idea but it was too specific and I knew it must have come from another psychic like me.”
I sat on my bed and ran my fingers through my hair. “Then I lost control. I couldn’t find my way back to my own body and I freaked. All I remember after that was a lot of insane colors and sounds and then darkness, until I woke up in the hospital.”
The brother sat beside me. “Who is the old man? Your friends told me what they knew but it wasn’t much.”
“I don’t know who he is. He gave us our abilities, and he came to save my life because it’s killing me. He told me about you. But I don’t know anything about him, really. I was too afraid to venture into his mind. There was too much.”
The door creaked and I jumped up as the old man walked into my bedroom.
“I can shed some light on that matter,” he said.
I threw a pillow at him. “Creep!”
“Fully understandable.” He sat in my armchair and put his fingertips together. “I invaded your dream, and now I invade your bedroom. I suppose that makes me a creep.”
“Tell me who you are.”
“I’m a telepath, and I was born a slave before the Civil War.”
“No. I am the son of a very powerful man. There are a handful of people like us…natural telepaths, men with extreme strength, some with telekinetic abilities, and more. I gave you the abilities you have in an effort to create more people like me, because the only other telepath I knew died in the war. I’m not quite like you…I can only connect to the mind of another telepath.”
He cleared his throat. “Can you imagine how lonely that is? For years I shared a bond with someone closer than any ordinary human could imagine, and then I lost them. It drove me mad, and I spent decades trying to create a replacement. I learned it isn’t possible, and I’m trying to make peace with that. So I am here to put right what I did wrong.”
“Can you help us?”
“Yes.” He smiled as he stood up. “I believe I can save your lives. We must hurry with you—the overexertion of finding your brother has progressed your condition so far that you have maybe a couple more days to live. Come with me.”
We followed him to an unassuming sedan outside, but I turned back. “I’ll be a minute,” I said.
The house was quiet and I went from room to room looking for the girlfriend. I found her curled in an armchair in Beardy’s office.
“Hey.” I touched her arm.
She awoke with a start and jumped up. Backed against the wall trembling.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
She rubbed her eyes and shuddered, and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
“I’m myself again and I remember everything. I’m so sorry for freaking you out.”
She licked her lips. “Really?”
“Honest, I’m back.”
The girlfriend hugged me so tight the air squeaked out of me. “Oh gosh, I was so scared,” she whispered.
“I know. But it’ll be okay. The old man found us. He’s waiting outside with my brother. He’s going to save my life.”
We walked out and I grabbed my purple coat on the way.
“Will you lose your abilities?” the girlfriend asked.
“I hope so.” But I wasn’t sure if I actually did.
We climbed into the cramped backseat of the car and she put her arm around me.
“Whatever happens,” she said, “I won’t leave you.”