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Amanda Barns opened the classroom door with her hip, trying to balance her two-year-old son in her arms and the overstuffed backpack digging into her shoulders. She was 15 minutes late, and as soon as she entered, Professor Yasmine halted her lecture, glaring.
“Sorry,” Amanda said, blushing and wishing she were invisible. “My babysitter cancelled at the last minute, and I couldn’t find another on such short notice.”
“You can’t bring your child in here,” the professor said. “He’ll disrupt the class.”
“He’s very quiet,” Amanda said. “I promise he won’t…”
“I’m sorry, but you should’ve planned ahead.”
Amanda heard (yet did not hear) the familiar thought-voice of her son: Tell her that according to the school’s discrimination policy, section 5, paragraph 3, mothers of young children without access to a daycare…
“…cannot be prevented from taking their child to class,” Amanda said, reciting after the voice.
Amanda smiled and sat with her son in her lap. She whispered in her child’s ear, “Thanks, Tommy.”
No problem, Thomas’s thought-voice replied. One of us has to read the policies. Amanda was pretty sure that no one in the college’s history had ever read the policies except Thomas, but at least it got them out of trouble this time.
“What a cute baby,” whispered the girl next to Amanda waving at Thomas. “Can you say ‘hi,’ buddy?” Thomas turned toward the girl and her smile faded. People often found Thomas’s eyes unsettling, Amanda had observed.
“He doesn’t talk yet,” Amanda whispered, a half-truth. In reality, what he did was far stranger than talking. When she’d originally heard the voice during her first trimester, Amanda had thought she was losing her mind, at least until her parents began hearing him too.
Her son was telepathic. He could watch the inner workings of people’s brains, could learn from their memories and experiences, which was how he’d learned to speak in the womb, absorbing the information directly from Amanda’s brain. He lived in a world of synapses and neurochemistry, like a human MRI machine. Often, he seemed to find that world more real than the outside one.
If he wanted to, he could scramble someone’s brain or stop their heart. Amanda chose not to think about that. She loved her child, but sometimes he frightened her.
Amanda ran her hand along his hair, the same shade of blond as hers. This was her son. Her son. The phrase was still strange to think. And she didn’t care (or she tried not to care) what others thought about her having a child at age 18 – she loved him.
Amanda expected Thomas to bombard her with questions through Professor Yasmine’s history lecture; he always asked questions during her homework. Today, however, he was strangely silent.
You okay, Thomas? Amanda thought to her son.
Yes, he responded. She glanced at his face. His eyes were fixed on Professor Yasmine.
Thomas didn’t cry during class, of course. In all his life, she’d only ever seen him cry once. As they were leaving, the professor stopped her. “Oh Amanda, I don’t care what your excuse is. Don’t bring him again.” Amanda scowled and walked away.
She kissed Thomas on the hair and asked, Why were you being so quiet?
For a moment, he didn’t answer.
Professor Yasmine has a brain tumor, Thomas said. She doesn’t know about it, but if left untreated, it will kill her.
“Are you sure?” Amanda asked for the hundredth time.
I’m sure, Thomas said.
“So, what do I do? Just walk up to her after class and say ‘My telepathic infant says you have a brain tumor. Probably should get that checked out’?”
He smiled slightly That wouldn’t be my first choice, but we’ll have to think of something.
Amanda sat in the living room of her parents’ house. Thomas faced her from across the couch, his infant body in complete contrast to his often coldly logical mind. A complete contrast except for the eyes, Amanda thought. Thomas had grown-up eyes – eyes that had seen far more than a child should have. She wondered if, at that very moment, he was watching electrical impulses travel through her brain.
“That’s kind that you care so much about her.” Amanda smiled at him. “You’re such a good boy, Tommy.”
For not letting someone die of a tumor? Thomas asked. I would be a bad person if I didn’t try to help her, but just trying to help her doesn’t make me a good person.
Rather than trying to argue, Amanda said, “We’ll talk about our plan tonight. Right now, it’s time for your least favorite part of the day.”
Thomas’s face twitched. I’d rather not, he said.
“You know what the doctor said. You’re delayed in motor skills and speech.”
I’ve also read Ulysses. That’s got to count for something.
Amanda was 90% sure he’d only read the book so that he could make comments like that.
“You know we need to do this, Thomas,” she said. “Come on. I’ll help you.”
For the next hour, they practiced movement and speech. Of course, Thomas could “speak” perfectly well telepathically, but in a way, that just made things harder. Because he didn’t need verbal speech to communicate, his skills were very underdeveloped. Likewise, even at two years old, he could hardly stand up without falling. He and Amanda both knew that he needed practice, but it was a fight every time. She suspected it was his pride. There was so much he could do on his own that it was hard for him to accept those things he couldn’t. He didn’t enjoy the reminder that he was a helpless infant.
After his practice, she left him to read on his e-reader while she ate and watched TV. At the end of the day, Thomas reminded her once more, Professor Yasmine. Don’t forget. She promised she wouldn’t, kissing her son on the head.
I love you, Mother, he said.
“I love you, too.”
Amanda stood outside Professor Yasmine’s office and took a deep breath. Confrontation had never been her strong suit, and she couldn’t imagine how she was going to explain this.
She knocked on the door, waited for a response that didn’t come, then knocked again.
“Come in.” It might have been her imagination, but Amanda thought she saw the professor frown when she opened the door.
A familiar book sat on the professor’s desk.
“Pride and Prejudice.” Amanda smiled. “I love that book.”
“Really? You didn’t strike me as the literary type.” Amanda gritted her teeth. Yasmine motioned for her to sit.
“Professor,” Amanda started, pausing for longer than she meant to, sorting her words. “Do you ever just know things? One of those moments where you just sense something without a shadow of a doubt, even though you’re not sure how you know it?”
“I prefer facts to feelings, personally.” The professor leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms.
“Well, I get those feelings from time to time, and I had one the other day. You need to go to the doctor. There’s something with your brain, and if you don’t get it checked out, you’re going to get sick.”
Professor Yasmine raised an eyebrow. “Is this your subtle way of telling me I have to get my head examined?”
Amanda’s eyes widened. “No! Nothing like that. I just want to help you, and I’m telling you that you need to go to the doctor or something bad might happen.”
“Thank you for your concern, Ms. Barns. If that’s all you needed, I have papers to grade, so if you’ll…”
“You’ve been having trouble with your coordination, right? Nausea, dizziness, involuntary eye movements?” Thomas had gleaned these symptoms from the professor’s memories. As Amanda spoke, Yasmine’s expression changed. “You have a malignant tumor in your cerebellum.”
It was the first time in her life that Amanda had seen an older woman look so frightened of her. She didn’t like the feeling.
“Go to the doctor,” Amanda said. “I just want to help you.”
Professor Yasmine didn’t show up to class that next week. Amanda’s parents had returned from their vacation by then, but she hadn’t told them about the situation. They loved Thomas and always worried about what would happen if people found out about his powers. She didn’t want to give them any more reason to be frightened.
Thomas had never been very expressive with his emotions, but Amanda could tell he was anxious about the professor. He had a strong sense of responsibility. She knew that he would just keep thinking about it until he knew for sure, so eventually, she suggested that they stop by the hospital.
Amanda wasn’t excited to talk to Professor Yasmine face-to-face, but fortunately, they wouldn’t have to. Thomas’s powers had a range of a few dozen feet, but after wandering around the hallways for a couple minutes, trying not to look suspicious, Thomas said, I can sense her. She’s on the floor above us.
Amanda sat in a waiting area almost directly underneath Yasmine’s room. She put Thomas on her lap and pretended to check her phone.
Can you tell if they’ve treated her? Amanda asked.
No. The tumor is still getting worse. His face twitched. I know I promised not to look into people’s memories without their permission…
If you think you can help her, do it, Amanda said. Thomas didn’t need any more encouragement. He relaxed into her arms, and she knew he was watching neurons fire and brain regions activate.
After several minutes, he said, The doctors are scared to operate. The reason why is complicated, but it doesn’t look good. Not at all.
Can you do anything? she asked.
Maybe. Give me a minute.
They sat there for over an hour, Thomas providing periodic updates. Amanda shook her head at just how strange her life had become.
Thomas said, I might be able to order her brain to direct nutrients away from the tumor. Slow its growth.
You can do that?
I can certainly try.
Try? Amanda raised an eyebrow. That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
Try was the wrong word. I’m not going to hurt her, I promise. Besides, I’m not sure she has much hope without me.
They sat there for another three hours until Thomas was too exhausted to continue.
Any progress? Amanda asked.
I’m not sure. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.
Thomas looked pale, and he fell asleep on the ride home. Amanda made sure he had a big supper and got plenty of sleep. She let him skip his walking and speaking exercises.
As she laid him in his bed, she whispered, “You’re a kind boy. I love you so much.” She kissed his forehead and paused to watch his little chest rise and fall before turning out the lights.
Amanda and Thomas spent every free hour that week outside the professor’s hospital room. Apparently, he was getting used to the strain because each time he was able to stay longer and longer without needing rest.
“You look tired,” Amanda whispered one afternoon. “Maybe we should take a break. Do something to help you relax.”
And if she dies on my break? What then?
Thomas was giving fewer updates, but Amanda could tell that Professor Yasmine wasn’t doing well. Amanda wished she could take the strain for her son, go through this for him. He was too young to be thinking about life and death.
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
Amanda had been lost in her thoughts, but suddenly her head jolted up toward a doctor who stood over her.
“I… I’m sorry if I’m disturbing anyone.”
“I saw you yesterday,” the doctor said. “You sat there for hours.”
Amanda had prepared her lie beforehand. She bit her lip and glanced away for effect.
“A few months ago, one of my friends died in a room over there,” Amanda said, “Being here makes me feel closer to him.” The doctor looked like he was trying to resist rolling his eyes. He walked away murmuring something about non-patients crowding the halls.
Amanda had wanted to tell her parents the truth, but Thomas had insisted otherwise. He was very good at convincing people to do things, and Amanda had never been particularly strong-willed. She told them that she’d found a playgroup for infants, that it would be good for Thomas to interact with kids his own age (something he hardly ever did). She did her best to explain away how tired the boy looked, how thin. He kept losing weight over the next few weeks, no matter how much Amanda fed him.
They did their best to avoid seeing Yasmine, but they did run into her once.
Amanda was entering the hospital, her son in her arms. She turned to see Professor Yasmine. The woman looked frail. Patches of dark hair were missing.
“Professor.” Amanda gave a smile that probably looked fake. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Amanda nearly winced at how unconvincing she sounded.
The professor eyed her. “You knew about the tumor. Right down to the location, you knew.”
Amanda opened her mouth, realized she had nothing to say, then closed it. She looked down at Thomas who was apparently equally at a loss for words.
Professor Yasmine stepped closer. “I don’t know what your deal is, but I’m going to find out.” She turned and walked down the hall.
That’s an interesting way to say thank you, Amanda said to Thomas.
He responded, She’s under a lot of pressure, and she’s scared she’s going to die. Don’t take it personally.
She was treating me that way before she found out about the tumor.
Thomas was silent for a moment, as if considering his words. Professor Yasmine’s daughter also became pregnant as a teenager, he said. Two years ago, she ran off with a man four years her senior that Yasmine suspects is a drug user. She hasn’t seen or heard from her since. Seeing you reminds her of her daughter.
Amanda’s eyes widened. It took a moment before she could respond. Still… that’s not an excuse.
No, not an excuse. But that’s why.
Things started improving after that. According to Thomas, Yasmine’s tumor was shrinking. The doctors couldn’t believe it, he told Amanda. They had no explanation.
She’s not fully healed, he explained. Even I can’t do that. But she is better.
After a few weeks, she was healthy enough for surgery, and the next week, she sent an email to the class saying she was going to be all right and would be teaching again soon. Amanda thought that would be the end of it, but soon after, Thomas asked to be taken back to the hospital.
“Why? Isn’t she better?”
She is, Thomas said. But there are others. So many others. Maybe I can help them, too.
Amanda cringed. Thomas’s ribs were showing now. He was losing what little muscle he had.
I have to help them, Thomas said. You have to let me help them.
Weeks passed. Weeks of hospitals, weeks of Thomas, his little face expressionless. Weeks of mending brains and stitching neurons. Professor Yasmine was back by then. She never again confronted Amanda about what had happened, but she eyed the girl with suspicion and with what looked like fear.
Meanwhile, Thomas and Amanda argued constantly about their time at the hospital with her insisting he take a few days to rest. Every now and then he’d capitulate, but eventually, he would always beg to go back.
One day she’d had enough.
“We’re not going anymore,” she said.
But my latest patient is almost healed. With just a few more sessions…
“This is killing you.”
They’ll die without me. Maybe that’s why I have these powers – to help people.
“And maybe the reason I had you was so that I could protect you. You’re killing yourself with this.”
I’m being careful. Don’t forget I can see every neuron of my own brain as well. I’m monitoring myself carefully, and I won’t let…
“I am your mother, and you are going to listen to me!” Thomas’s eyes widened. Amanda was glad that her parents weren’t home to hear the fight. She and Thomas stared at each other for a long time before she crossed her arms and said, “I’m not taking you.”
Amanda was so glad she’d found the new daycare for Thomas. It seemed perfect. She dropped off her son with one of the workers, then drove to campus. She got halfway there before she realized what had happened.
Amanda found her son in their normal spot at the hospital – right where she’d left him. Her voice was hard: “What did you do?”
Thomas looked up. That didn’t last as long as I expected.
Amanda stared at him in horror. She had felt like she was dropping him off at a daycare. She’d seen a daycare. She remembered placing him on the padded floor beside a pile of building blocks. But there was no daycare. In reality, she’d left him on that chair.
“You made me see things,” she said. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
There’s lots of things I can do that you don’t know, Thomas said. I could make you leave again.
“Those days I made you take a break – did you fake that too?”
Unfortunately, I’m not that powerful. At least not yet.
“Well, hello little guy,” said a doctor walking down the hall towards Thomas and Amanda. “What are you doing here?”
Leave us, Thomas said. Instantly, the doctor turned and walked away.
“You’re coming home,” Amanda said.
I can’t do that.
Without warning, the world changed. Amanda looked around and saw her elementary school classroom. But of course, that’s what she saw. She was 11 years old, and the school day had just ended. She needed to go out to the parking lot where Mom and Dad would be in the car waiting to take her home.
“Stop it, Thomas,” Amanda said. She closed her eyes and bit her lip until it began to bleed. When she opened her eyes again, she was back in the hospital.
I need to help them, Thomas said. Go back to class. I’ll stay here.
“Do you think I’m just going to leave you alone?”
Are you worried about me? Worried I’ll get hungry? Thomas asked in a mocking tone. I can make the staff bring me food. They’re not expecting someone to poke around in their minds, so they’re easier to control than you are. Maybe you’re worried I’ll get kidnapped? I’d be more afraid for the kidnapper. You can’t imagine how easy it would be to sever somebody’s spinal cord.
Amanda shivered. Her son – kind enough to spend every hour he could mending sick people’s brains, yet cold enough to mind control his own mother. But she was rapidly losing her patience.
“I’ll admit, there’s a lot you can do,” Amanda said leaning in, “but there’s still one thing you can’t.” And with that, she grabbed her son, lifting him out of the chair. He was squirming, trying to get free, but she held him easily. Too easily. He was so much weaker than he should have been by this age.
She started towards the door when she felt her head start to spin. For a moment, she was worried that she was going to fall over. Thomas suddenly felt heavy in her arms, and she had an urge to put him down. Just to rest for a moment…
“Stop it, Thomas,” she said.
I’m sorry, but they’ll die without me.
Without warning, the world turned black. Amanda whipped her head around but saw nothing, like she’d gone blind.
Can’t drive me home if you can’t see, Thomas said.
Amanda gritted her teeth and, in her anger, did something she would have never expected herself to do. She grabbed Thomas’s little arm and squeezed, digging her fingernails into the skin, drawing blood. Her grip was almost tight enough to fracture his frail arm bones. Thomas cried out – a toddler’s cry, high-pitched and shrill.
Her vision returned as Thomas’s concentration broke. For a half-second, Amanda felt a sense of victory. And then she looked at her opponent, clutching his small arm, and her heart broke.
“You’re my son,” she said, “and I’m not going to let you go.” And in that moment, she loved him so badly it hurt.
Thomas just stared at her with his distant, calculating eyes. Every fold of her brain lay open and exposed before him. She knew he was right: If he was determined enough, there was nothing she could do to force him to leave.
I’ll go, he said. You win. He didn’t speak again for the entire ride home.
Thomas didn’t ask to go to the hospital during the next week. He practiced movement when she told him to and didn’t fight back. He ate well and quickly regained his weight. Soon, he was even able to walk several steps without help. His verbal speaking was improving, too, although Amanda doubted anyone but her could actually understand his infant babble.
But at the same time, he seemed withdrawn. While he would do his verbal speaking practice without complaining, he remained quiet telepathically, usually only speaking when spoken to, rarely asking questions. She wanted to talk to him, but she was frightened. What would she even say? The bruise on his arm quickly healed, but she squirmed each time she thought of it.
Amanda had always had trouble sleeping, often tossing and turning. This night, however, she fell asleep as soon as she lay down. But later on, she started stirring. Finally, she woke, checking the time on her phone: 4:45. She stretched, then rose to go to the bathroom. On the way, she stopped by Thomas’s bed.
It was empty.
For a moment, she just froze, her eyes wide with terror.
“Thomas?” Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
Amanda switched on the lights, scanning the room although she knew he wouldn’t have walked anywhere in the dark. She looked into the hallway and was about to scream for her parents when she noticed something. The panel for the house alarm was open, and the door alarm had been turned off. Someone had entered the passcode.
Amanda knew where her son was.
She arrived at hospital waiting room just in time. A police officer and half dozen staff members stood together, a nurse holding Thomas who thrashed and screamed.
“Hey!” Amanda shouted, running over. “What do you think you’re doing with my son?”
Thomas looked up at her and instantly calmed. He reached toward her and shouted one of the only words that – thanks to the speaking lessons – he could say distinctly: “Momma! Momma!” Amanda grabbed him from the nurse, and Thomas hugged his mother around the neck.
The police officer approached her. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to see some ID. Hospital staff found the child almost 30 minutes ago. How long exactly did you leave him alone?”
“I didn’t leave him,” Amanda said, but she couldn’t think of a lie fast enough. She grabbed her wallet and handed her license to the officer.
“Momma,” Thomas said again and kissed her cheek, no doubt trying to reassure the staff that Amanda really was his mother.
“I hope you understand child abandonment is a serious charge,” the officer said.
He was just doing his job, but Amanda wanted to punch him. Nevertheless, she took a second to calm herself. “I’m so sorry. Please, I’m a good mother. Ask my parents. I’m doing the best that I can.”
The police officer stared for a moment, but apparently, he pitied her, because he said, “Consider this a warning, and never leave your child unattended again.” He left, followed by the hospital staff members. Amanda sunk into a chair, sighing with relief.
I’m sorry, Thomas said. There were six of them all walking together when they found me, and it was too many minds to control all at once. I’m so sorry.
But Amanda wasn’t angry; she was too relieved that he was safe. She put her hand on his back and kissed his head. He wiped his face, but she’d already seen that it was wet. It was the second time she’d seen him cry.
“Okay, I’m impressed,” Amanda said. “How did you get here?”
I put you, Grandmother, and Grandfather into the deepest part of your sleep cycle, he said. Our neighbor’s house is just close enough for him to be in range, so I took control, then made him walk over to our house, grab the hide-a-key, and unlock the door. Then I had him come grab me out of bed, put me in his car, and take me here. Erased his memory of it all before sending him home.
Amanda shuddered at the thought of a strange man in her room, grabbing her son.
Thomas continued, It would have been more convenient to use Grandmother or Grandfather, but like you, they would have known what was happening and been able to resist. I was going to get someone else to take me back home in an hour or two. Ideally, you wouldn’t have known I was gone.
“Is this the first time?”
Amanda stared at him.
She turned away, hand still on his back. They simply sat together for a long moment before Amanda said, “What are their names?”
“Your patients. The people you’re helping.”
Oh. Thomas looked surprised, as if he hadn’t expected her to ask. I’ve been operating on three of them tonight. Bessy is that way. He motioned up and to the right. She was a stay-at-home mom. Last of her kids left for college recently. About two weeks ago, she had a stroke. All her kids are back now and have hardly left her side. I wish she could be conscious for it.
“And the others?”
He motioned up and to the left. Over there is Tessa. She was about a month away from graduating medical school when she was in a car accident. Severe brain trauma. In the room next to her is David. He has a tumor like Professor Yasmine. Doesn’t get many visitors. He had a wife, but she left him a few years ago.
Amanda blinked away tears.
“Were they the ones you were helping last week?”
Some of them. There were two others.
“And they got better?”
She knew immediately she shouldn’t have asked. Thomas shook his head, and Amanda felt cold.
I want to help these people, Mother.
“I know. You’re a kind boy, Tommy. Very kind.”
He shook his head again. You don’t see them like I do. Tessa’s sister is in her room now, and she’s crying. I can feel her crying. I can see every neurochemical in her brain – and she’s so much more than mere neurochemicals. All of us are. I could no more ignore her pain than you could ignore mine.
Amanda’s heart was breaking. “I love you, Thomas.”
What do we do? he asked.
“I don’t know.”
She held her son, and he leaned in, his head resting against her side.