(The following is an excerpt from Behind the Gloves. The full project can be found online here: archiveofourown/series/677654)
September 2262. Somewhere in the Greater Chicago suburbia.
Andy Mora tried to stop, but it kept happening – he'd find himself humming along to the songs in other people's heads, or chiming in on climatic moments of stories he hadn't yet heard. Or he'd laugh at jokes before they were finished, turn around before people called his name, answer questions before he was asked.
Leo was the first to finally say something. "You know, Andy, that's really freaky."
"You were just going to say it anyway, Leo."
"So? It's not right! Stop it!"
When he raised his hand to answer the question his teacher was about to ask, he could feel everyone staring at him.
"Andy," she said, "you couldn't possibly know what I'm about to say. I haven't asked the question yet."
So he put his hand down and tried to laugh it off.
Yet it seemed that the second he stopped concentrating, his mind was acting up again. Confused, scared, he didn't know how to stop doing it – it was all reflexive, automatic, like reading a piece of paper shoved under his nose. He didn't even know when he was saying something "wrong" until he'd already said it.
He wanted it all to stop, but it didn't. It just got worse.
"Watch where you're going, sicko!" shouted Patrick as he stuck his foot out in front of Andy and tripped him in the corridor. With blond hair in a military buzz cut and a perpetual sneer on his round face, Patrick looked every bit as mean as he acted. "You're a freak, Mora!"
Andy's friends laughed as he stood up. Only Misha had mixed feelings, and he looked away, pretending that nothing was happening.
"Keep it up, Mora," Patrick taunted, hauling his light brown satchel up onto his shoulder. "The Psi Corps will come for you and you'll never see your family again. They're coming for you."
Misha spoke up. "Shut up Patrick. Andy's just lucky sometimes. He's no more of a telepath than you are. We've all been tested. Leave him alone."
But under the constant taunting of Patrick and his buddies, Andy's friends began to drift away. One day, Andy was sitting in the stands and studying math while waiting for a track meet to start. He laughed to himself, but everyone ignored him.
Geoff closed his book a few moments later to chat with Victor, then looked back to it.
"Oh, crap," Geoff mumbled to himself, "my bookmark fell out. Where was I?"
Andy looked up from his homework and turned around in the bleachers. "You're at the part where Tom shows up at his own funeral, and the preacher's like, 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow – SING! – and put your hearts in it!' and everybody starts singing. That's a really funny scene."
Geoff and everyone else in earshot looked at Andy with shock and horror.
"What?" Andy asked, suddenly embarrassed.
"You're not in my English class. And you've never even read Tom Sawyer."
"You asked me where you were in the book, Geoff! You asked me! It's not my fault if you read something funny."
"I wasn't asking you! I was talking to myself!"
"Andy's a freak," said Mike.
"I don't want you sitting next to me anymore," Geoff said, and stood and walked further down the stands.
"Stay out of people's heads, Andy," Victor said, scared. "That's not right."
"I didn't do anything! I swear!" Andy got up and took a couple steps towards Geoff.
"Stay away from me," Geoff said from down the bleachers. "Just stay away from me."
From then on, the relationship between Andy and his friends was different. He noticed Geoff and Mike turn and walk the other way whenever he approached. He tried to sit with them at lunch, but there was always some excuse.
"Sorry Andy, we're holding this seat for Misha."
No you're not, Andy thought. He knew it was a lie.
He ate his lunch alone, in the back of the cafeteria. It'll pass, he kept telling himself. They'll get over it… we've all been friends forever, since cub scouts. They're just afraid of Patrick.
But the next day, his friends made sure to pick a table with just enough chairs for them, and no room for him at all.
That he might be telepathic raised more questions than answers. No telepaths lived in town. He'd never even seen one in person, other than the testers who had showed up to test students in kindergarten and again at the start of middle school. Telepathy testing had been mandatory in schools for about a century, but Andy didn't have a clear idea what happened to kids if they tested positive.
He couldn't really be a telepath, he figured – there were no telepaths in his family, and didn't you have to be born that way, or have some gene? Hadn't he already been tested for it? The tests had come back as expected – normal. Everyone else's always had, too.
He couldn't be a telepath.
History class had barely mentioned telepaths. Every timeline had the obligatory dates – April 12, 2156, Psi Corps founded – but there wasn't much more offered than that. No telepaths who had lived in the past hundred years were even named. The only telepath in Andy's entire text was William Karges, a bodyguard to then-President Robinson, who had been fatally shot by an assassin while pulling her to safety, and whose death had inspired her to pass equal opportunity laws to create the Corps, to keep telepaths safe.
"Why do telepaths go to separate schools?" Andy had asked his history teacher, after class one day.
"Why do you ask?"
He shrugged. "Just curious. Our class reader doesn't say a lot."
"Isn't it obvious?" the teacher replied coldly. "It's because they cheat."
Andy didn't understand. Normals cheated, too, didn't they? And kids who were caught cheating weren't sent to separate schools, they were just given bad grades, and made to stay after school.
Since that day on the bleachers, Andy had developed more control. It wasn't difficult now to know what others were reading and writing. Seeing what others were writing on their exams was as easy as looking up at the board.
What if I'm really a telepath, and the teachers accuse me of cheating? he wondered nervously. Will I be kicked out of school?
Once known, an answer couldn't be unknown. If he so much as paid attention in the wrong way, at the wrong time, to the wrong thing…
No no no, that would be bad. Really bad.
The problem was that trying not to pay attention to something only made him pay more attention to it.
With horror, Andy realized he could be accused of cheating even if his answers were wrong, so long as they looked too much like another classmate's. Terrified, he started intentionally writing nonsense on his tests or leaving questions blank. He couldn't write anything at all without risking punishment, both for himself and for his classmates. Failing, it seemed, was the only safe thing to do.
His coach pulled him aside one day. "Andy, you had good grades all last year, and now your teachers have told me you've started getting D's. Is everything all right at home?"
He shrugged, pretending he didn't care.
"Your guidance counselor is worried about you. So am I. This isn't like you."
His parents, too, were concerned, but he only told them he didn't know why he was doing badly in school. His math teacher asked him to come for extra help twice a week, and Andy obediently did so, even though he already knew the material she was teaching.
He sat in class every day and watched the autumn leaves stirring in the breeze, tuning out the teacher and the other students. He felt like one of those leaves, blown off the tree, lost. He didn't know anyone who could do what he could do, and his friends drifted further and further away.
If I don't say anything, maybe it will pass. Maybe this will go away and everything will be all right again.
He hoped. He prayed.
He decided to talk to his mom. Hypothetically, of course.
Andy came downstairs from his room, butterflies in his stomach. The news played in the background as his mother made dinner.
"Mom? Can I ask you something?"
"The news is on now, honey, can it wait?"
"Authorities in New York City, Chicago and Boston report that graffiti from rogue telepath groups was discovered this morning in subway tunnels, in what appears to be a coordinated effort. Authorities shut down all three subway systems for several hours this morning as they searched for possible explosives, disrupting the commute for over a million workers."
The screen switched to a picture of a subway tunnel with two slogans spray-painted onto the stone walls, "Death to Psi Corps" and "Remember Byron."
"Psi Corps officials confirm that the slogan 'Remember Byron' refers to Byron Gordon, the renegade Psi Cop turned rogue who set himself on fire last June, sparking the recent wave of unrest. This morning's graffiti echoes similar slogans left on the walls of the main Psi Corps headquarters on Mars, which was bombed in June by rogue telepath terrorists, as well as at the sites of dozens of subsequent bombings and other attacks on Psi Corps facilities both on Earth and off-world."
The scene switched to old footage, showing the blaze from the summer, lighting up the night sky with flames and sparks and great plumes of black smoke.
"Authorities throughout the Earth Alliance remain on high alert for more terrorist attacks. Psi Corps issued a statement this morning reminding the public that the safety of normals, as always, remains their highest concern, and that they take all threats very seriously. A thorough investigation is underway. The Corps urges anyone who has information on these threats to contact authorities. The public is urged to report suspicious behavior to law enforcement immediately. Your help can save lives."
The number for a tip-line appeared on the screen.
"My God, what's wrong with this world?" Andy's mother was saying. "First President Clark, and now this? Rogue telepaths again? Has the world gone mad? We haven't this much of a problem with rogue telepaths since my childhood. Can't the Psi Corps keep its own people in line? For all our hard-earned tax dollars…"
"The recent unrest has also added fuel to the ages-old 'telepath question'. Is there a solution? Is the Corps doing enough to protect the public? Speaking to us from Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts is Professor-"
Andy nervously tossed an orange up and down as his mother prepared some vegetables for dinner.
He felt her mind suddenly shift to Lucy.
"Will you stop playing with that orange, Andy, and fill up Lucy's bowl? We've moved some things around. The dog food should be out in the garage now."
I knew what she was going to say. How did I know what she was going to say?
He went into the garage and did as he was told, though it took him a while to find everything. When he returned, the news had switched to a different story, this time about the new Interstellar Alliance negotiations. Andy didn't know what the commentators were talking about, other than it had something to do with the politics between humans and aliens. He cared only that the story wasn't about telepaths.
"Interstellar News has also received confirmation on rumors that former Minbari Ambassador Delenn, wife of Interstellar Alliance President John Sheridan, is pregnant, marking the first time a human and an alien have ever conceived. Medical experts remain baffled…"
I'll ask her during the ads, he told himself. Just hypothetically.
Finally, the segment ended and a public service announcement came on. A boy about Andy's age approached his mother in the living room.
He'd seen the ad before – it was a few years old. But now the PSA took on an eerie familiarity to his own circumstances.
"John?" the boy's mother asked him. "Why aren't you outside playing with the other kids?"
"They hate me," he said sullenly.
"It's true. I'm just… I'm different, Mom. I can feel what they think about me, and they know I can. And he just kept hitting me until I said I was the liar. I just don't know what to do anymore."
"Don't worry, Johnny," his mother said.
"We'll take it from here-"
A Psi Cop materialized in the boy's living room, courtesy of special effects.
"Look!" the boy exclaimed. "A Psi Cop!"
"That's right Johnny," the Psi Cop said, his hair slicked back, his uniform neatly pressed. "There are a lot of other kids who feel just the same way you do. They're confused and afraid, but they don't have to be. The problem isn't that other kids don't like you. It's that they don't understand you. But we do."
Andy felt an uneasy feeling in his stomach, like he was suddenly floating weightless, unmoored from his old sense of balance, of grounding. He'd ignored similar ads all his life, even laughed at them sometimes, because they were never relevant to him back then. Besides, the ministry put out lots of messages for teens – don't start forest fires, don't take drugs, don't drink and drive, and so on.
But now Andy didn't know what to think. He related – he knew his friends didn't understand him, either. They called him a freak and told him what he could do "wasn't right."
"You're special," the Psi Cop told the boy. "You're a latent telepath about to come into full bloom."
"My Johnny?" asked the mother. "A telepath?"
"Probably. But to be sure, take him down to the Psi Corps Testing Center first thing tomorrow."
"How do I find one?"
"We're everywhere, for your convenience. We have offices in some schools, and in children's hospitals. We even have mobile testing centers that travel the country."
There certainly was no such office in Andy's school, that he knew that much. Maybe in the big cities? He'd never seen a mobile testing center, either, though testers did come to his middle school every year. In kindergarten, they'd done the testing right after the school nurse had checked the children for head lice.
"And if he qualifies, we'll give him an education, a job, a purpose. And, we'll pay all his bills for life!"
In the next scene, the boy stood with the Psi Cop, in a smaller version of the same uniform with matching badge and gloves, his hair slicked back like that of his new role model. He looked happy.
"John," his mother said, "look at you, you've come so far. Look at you! We're all so proud!"
"And I'm proud to be a part of the Psi Corps," the boy replied, beaming.
"So remember," the Psi Cop told the camera, "if you know someone who might be a telepath, or think you might be one yourself, help them get the help they need. Call the Corps. Call Government Information for more on a Psi Corps Center near you. This message is from the Ministry for Public Information, and your local Psi Corps Recruitment Office."
"Bah," Andy's mother said, rolling her eyes at the screen. "Now there's one problem I'm glad we don't have. Proud? How ridiculous. Who would be proud to have a child in Psi Corps?"
Andy's mouth went dry, and his knees suddenly felt like rubber. He held onto the marble countertop to keep from falling over.
"What was it you wanted to talk about?" she asked as the next ad came on. "Is this about school?"
"Never mind, it's nothing," he croaked. "Nothing important."
Andy performed worse and worse on the track.
"You just don't have the discipline," his coach said. "You're distracted. Is everything all right at home?"
"You eating right? Sleeping enough?"
"Wanna talk about it?"
He thought about telling his coach the truth. Maybe Andy could trust him more than his mom.
"What do you think about telepaths?" Andy asked his coach after practice, when no one was around.
"Why do you ask?"
"Oh, just 'cuz they've been all over the news lately." It seemed like the safest excuse.
The coach laughed. "Oh, there's no reason to worry, Andy. All that trouble is far away in the city. You won't find any telepaths around here."
"Yeah, but what do you think of them?"
The coach chewed on his gum for a moment, thinking. "I suppose they didn't have any choice being born that way," he said at last. "But if they're going to live in society, they have to follow the rules, you know? That's why we have the Psi Corps, to keep 'em in line." He chuckled. "But don't worry, there are no telepaths around here, even the good kind."
Andy nodded and went to put his sneakers away in his locker.
"It's like… I suppose it's like carrying a gun," the coach continued. "I've got a license to carry it. Means I know how to be responsible, that I agree to follow the law. Telepaths got to be licensed, too. I don't know much, just that the good ones mostly work for businesses in the city. And Psi Cops track the bad ones down so we don't have to worry."
On his way home, Andy spotted four classmates smoking outside O'Neil's convenience store. Patrick, the boy who'd tripped him, was among them.
Andy froze, trying to decide if the group would let him pass, or if he should cross the street to give them a wide berth. Patrick was in a terrible mood, and Andy could feel it. It was enough for Andy to make up his mind. He had enough problems as it was, and he didn't need one more.
"Hey! Hey look, it's the freak!" Patrick said, dropping his cigarette and crushing it with his heel. His friends looked up.
Andy felt Patrick's anger like a dagger of ice in his chest.
Oh my God, he wants to kill me. Something horrible happened at home and he's looking for a scapegoat.
Andy turned and ran.
"Hey! Hey come back here, you little shit! I wanna show you something!"
Andy ran past the shops on Main Street, zigzagging around the pedestrians, heading for the woods about half a mile off, hoping to lose them. If ever his track trophies mattered, it was now.
Even without turning, he could hear – and feel – the four bullies in hot pursuit.
"Hey! Hey, where do you think you're going?!"
Andy tried to take a shortcut through an alleyway, but never made it out the other side. Something hard hit Andy in the middle of his back, and he lost his balance and fell, hitting the duracrete. His chest hit the hard surface with a powerful thud, knocking the wind out of him, and for an instant he couldn't breathe at all. He knew he had to run, but he couldn't move. His palms were scraped and bloody.
A light brown satchel lay next to him. Patrick's bag. That kid had good aim.
Come on Andy, he told himself Get up…
He tried to stand, but it was too late. Rough hands grabbed him and flipped him over, and a punch connected painfully with his jaw.
"Mora, you mindfucker! That'll put you in your place!"
Then another punch, and another. Then a kick to his ribs.
Andy tried to curl into a ball. He didn't want to fight. He didn't even have the air in his lungs to scream.
"Freak! Monster! This'll teach you not to go raping people's brains out!"
Even with his eyes closed, Andy could see the scene – two of them held him down and the third stood lookout. Patrick hit him again and again. Memories, sensations and hatred all bled together and ran.
For a moment, Andy wasn't sure which side of the attack he was on. He could feel nothing in his body over the barrage of blinding hatred, the images and sounds and smells of Patrick's life jumbled together and slamming into Andy as hard as the other boy's fists. Patrick was punching his father, trying to protect himself and his mother from the times his father would get drunk and violent. He was punching the teachers, he was punching some girl who wouldn't go out with him, he was pummeling people Andy hardly even knew. Patrick wanted to kill Andy so no one would ever see how weak, how terrified, how vulnerable he really was.
And then it was over, and he was alone. The pain hit him suddenly, as the punches finally caught up with his body.
I can't be dead, he thought, lying unmoving in the alleyway, I hurt too much to be dead.
Though Andy's eyes were still squeezed shut, he could feel attention on him – passersby must have seen the fight. There was a man approaching.
"Hey! Hey, kid, you all right?"
A shopkeeper, Andy knew. Then he placed the voice – Mr. O'Neil, who owned the convenience store around the corner. Andy suddenly knew that Mr. O'Neil had seen the bullies chasing him by the shop, and charged out of the store in pursuit, in the middle of a transaction. He'd run after them, recognizing them, knowing there would be trouble.
Andy's head spun, and he felt like he was going to throw up. He didn't have the strength to care he was looking at the older man's thoughts, wrong or right.
Oh, thank God for you, Mr. O'Neil.
"I saw them chasing you," the shopkeeper said. "That Patrick's gonna get a whupping when his father finds out about this. Can you talk?"
Andy coughed weakly and tried to speak, but all that came out was a choking sound.
"I'll get you some ice. Can you walk back to my shop? You can call your parents from inside, where it's safe. We've got to get you to a doctor. Come on."
Andy nodded weakly. Leaning on the kind shopkeeper, Andy limped back to the store.
Now what would he tell his parents? His coach? They'd ask what happened, and he'd have nothing to say except that he was jumped on the way home from school. He couldn't tell them why Patrick hated him. He couldn't tell them about what was happening in Patrick's family.
He hadn't been attacked for anything he'd done, he'd been attacked simply for what he was.
And as he sat in the store, ice pack to his face, he remembered the boy in the Psi Corps PSA. That kid had been beaten up too, hadn't he?
Andy tried to avoid Patrick. They only shared one class – science. Andy tried to go the whole period without looking at Patrick, and the bully, for his part, knew better than to threaten Andy in front of a teacher. But sometimes when he was bored, he would sit quietly and envision different ways of murdering Andy, trying to get him to react.
In his fantasies, Patrick was shooting him in half with an assault weapon. Burning him with a bottle of gasoline and a torch. Hanging him. Feeding him to vicious rats. Tossing him off a cliff.
Andy began to dread science class, and usually arrived late. He considered skipping, but worried that would attract too much attention from the teacher. He didn't want Patrick to have the satisfaction of watching Andy get punished. Worse, it might even encourage him.
The torture went on and on. Andy pretended not to notice. If he reacted, he told himself, then Patrick would have even more confirmation that Andy really was telepathic. Maybe, Andy worried, he'd try to kill him for real.
One day, the teacher asked him to stand up and name each structure of the plant cell on the screen as she pointed to them.
"Nucleus," Andy said, "chloroplast…"
He flinched visibly. Patrick had tossed him in an oven, alive.
"Uh, uh… cell wall…"
He flinched again – Patrick was chopping his limbs off with a chainsaw.
He'd had enough. He mumbled that he didn't know the other answers, apologized, and sat down. No one would think he was a telepath if he said he didn't know the answers, right?
"Retard," he heard Patrick mumble under his breath.
Day after day the torment went on. He was poisoned. He was strapped to dynamite like in an old-fashioned cartoon. He was ripped apart by hyenas. He was decapitated by a knight with a sword. The one infinite resource in the universe, Andy decided, was Patrick's sadistic imagination.
He wanted to stand up in class and scream for Patrick to shut up. He wanted to tell the teacher what was happening. He wanted to switch to another science class. He wanted one person – just one person – to witness the hell Patrick was putting him through.
No one saw. When Andy's grades continued to fall, the teacher asked Andy to stay after school for extra help, and again, Andy obediently went, but said nothing about Patrick's creative torment.
One day, the fantasies changed. Instead of random and outrageous violent scenarios, the new thoughts were much more methodical and mundane. There was a knife hidden in the bushes, he saw, a knife Patrick had stolen from his own kitchen. And Patrick had asked several of his friends to meet him under the flagpole after school, the same flagpole where the school would gather every morning for the pledge.
Patrick and the other boys would hide under the bushes, Andy realized – Patrick would grab the knife, and they'd ambush Andy as he walked home. Patrick, either because he was stupid or because he was just that obsessed, played the fantasy over and over in his mind that day in class, especially the part where he pulled out the knife and – somehow impressing all the other boys and the girl of Patrick's dreams – stabbed Andy repeatedly.
Andy wished there was even one person he could trust and ask for help, but there wasn't. Patrick hadn't threatened him aloud, and he hadn't written a threat down. There was nothing to show an adult that could prove anything. What would he say, that Patrick was thinking about killing him that afternoon? How would he explain knowing that?
He went to history class and drew squiggles for all the exam answers. He didn't give a shit about the art and culture of the great Centauri Empire.
Maybe, he thought, this would turn out to be just another sadistic fantasy. Maybe there was no knife, maybe it was all in Patrick's imagination. Maybe Patrick was trying to trick him into telling a teacher, so Patrick would find out if Andy was actually telepathic, for real.
In line for lunch at the cafeteria, he spotted one of Patrick's buddies, Dan, standing about ten feet off, chatting with some other friends.
I can find out if he knows about it, Andy realized suddenly. I can find out right now if they really plan to ambush me.
He still didn't think it was right to do, but he knew he had to put his own life first. The information he was looking for wasn't right at the surface of the other boy's mind – that was a conversation about football – but it wasn't too far behind.
Dan stopped talking, disoriented for a moment, a little bit dizzy. He sat down. Then it was over.
Patrick had indeed told him to meet up at the flagpole after school got out that day, because there was going to be a fight.
"Who you fighting?" Dan had asked.
"Mora. The shithead. He called my mom a whore. I'm gonna whup him."
"Yeah, yeah, sure, I'll be there."
A knot of panic formed in Andy's stomach. It was true. And the knife was probably there, too, under that bush.
Oh my God, he's going to try to kill me for real.
Andy mentally ran down his options, and there weren't many. He could take another route home, but there was nothing to stop Patrick from trying again the next day, or the next. If he told an adult, he had no proof whatsoever of Patrick's plans. He could run out of school during lunch period, try to find the knife, and skip the afternoon classes, but then he'd get in trouble, and he'd have to explain his odd behavior to his parents. And Patrick could always steal another knife or find another weapon. Maybe he'd delay the attack by a few days, or even a week, but if the other boy really wanted to try to kill him, sooner or later he'd find a way to catch Andy off guard. He was telepathic, not omniscient.
Andy hardly touched his lunch. He didn't know what to do, but he knew he didn't want the meal to be his last.
When the school bell rang, Andy was the first one out the door. He planted his feet under the flagpole.
You want an ambush, you son of a bitch? he thought. You're gonna get one.
Slowly the other students filed out the doors, waiting for the bus, for rides, talking to friends. The flag overhead flapped in the breeze, with a loud clap, clap, clap. Unlike in the old time vids, there was no tumbleweed.
Come on, Patrick, come on.
The flag flapped, the students chatted. Ground cars came and went.
I'm not weak. I'm not a victim. I'm not his punching bag. I'll teach him never, ever to mess with me again.
Seconds ticked by in the chilly October air, until finally Patrick and his three buddies appeared.
"Mora? What the hell are you doing here?" Patrick began, before Andy punched him in the face. His fist connected with a very satisfying thunk.
"I know what you're planning!" Andy screamed, kicking Patrick in he groin and knocking him to the ground. "You think you can kill me, do you? You'll never kill me! You can rot in hell!"
He felt the eyes of half the school on him – their alarm mixing with the satisfying panic from Patrick.
Never again, he told himself, never again.
As Andy fell on top of Patrick and pummeled him, Patrick's friends stood motionless, as if time had stopped, and the world had flipped upside down.
Andy Mora's kicking Patrick's ass?
"Go Patrick, get him!"
"Show that shit who's boss!"
But Patrick lay on his back in the dirt, pinned down under Andy's weight, terrified.
"Swear you'll never hurt me again!" Andy was screaming. "You wanna get up? Swear it!"
"Help!" was all the other boy cried, tears running down his cheeks.
Andy felt someone grabbing him from behind and pulling him off.
"Andy! Andy! What are you doing?!"
He saw disbelief. He saw horror. He saw disappointment.
He saw his coach.
Andy was suspended from school for two days. His coach cut him from the team, and gave him a long, moralistic speech. Andy's parents grounded him indefinitely.
"You're not to leave this room other than to eat or use the toilet," his father said. "And all you're doing is homework, are we clear?"
"Suspension isn't a vacation, this is punishment," said Andy's mom. "We are beyond horrified at your actions. More than that, we're disappointed. You can go back to school in two days, but you're still grounded. No vids. No calls. No parties. No friends."
It wasn't as if he had any friends left, anyway. He opened his mouth to speak.
"And don't you even try to tell us this isn't fair. You deserve it, and you know you deserve it. You know what you did was wrong. This is to teach you a lesson."
Andy sat on his bed, his hands balled into fists. They didn't understand. They didn't even want to understand.
"Can I at least walk Lucy?" he asked.
"No. We'll do that. Your job is to do your homework and think about your actions."
"I know you're angry," said Andy's mom, "I know Patrick was bullying you, but that doesn't give you the right to hit him first. And I'm sorry you got cut from the team, but maybe this will teach you that your actions have consequences."
"That's not what happened!" Andy shouted as hot tears started to form in his eyes. "Don't you even want to hear my side of the story?!"
"I don't want to listen to your excuses, Andy," his mother answered coldly, her arms crossed. "Half the school saw the fight. The principal told us about it. Your coach told us about it. We know you hit him first."
Andy bit his lip. I started it? Only if those "fantasies" of Patrick's don't count. You can't see it, so you think it's not real. You try living with images of being slaughtered in your mind every day in class, and not being able to tell anyone-
"You're grounded until you accept responsibility for starting the fight."
"But that's not what happened!" he shouted back, tears rolling down his cheeks. "You don't want the truth, you just want to punish me!"
His mother's eyes were hard as polished steel. He knew that look. She used to look at him like that when he was little, when she would hit him for misbehaving.
He shrank inside.
What would his parents rather he have done, tell a teacher and get called a liar? Ignore the problem and let Patrick send him to the ICU?
"Don't come out of your room until you're ready to take responsibility for your actions and apologize to us. And to Patrick."
"Apologize to Patrick? Patrick was planning to kill me! He was planning to kill me, do you hear me?!"
The door slammed shut, ending the discussion.
Andy collapsed on his bed in tears.
I'm cursed, he thought, between sobs. I'm cursed. No track team, no friends, my parents hate me… What good is it to be alive, but dead anyway?
Andy's parents let him come downstairs for supper. On the television, a man and woman sat in their bedroom, alone, worried.
"I'm concerned about Moira," said the woman. "Her school called and told me she's been suspended for cheating."
"Again?" asked the man. "They suspended her just last week!"
"She said she can't help it, that she knows what her classmates are thinking without even trying. I don't understand! Poor Moira, now she just sits in her room and cries!"
"Don't worry," said the man, sullenly. "I'm sure we'll find someone who can help us."
A Psi Cop suddenly materialized.
"Look, a Psi Cop!" exclaimed the woman.
"That's right!" the Psi Cop told the concerned parents, a smile on her face. "There are a lot of parents just like you, overwhelmed and scared, but you don't have to be. Psi Corps is here to help. Moira's teachers don't understand her, but we do."
The parents looked relieved.
"Moira is special," the Psi Cop continued. "We will teach her to control her talents and use them productively in society."
"Our Moira, a telepath?" the man asked.
"To be sure, take her down to the Psi Corps Testing Center first thing tomorrow. If she qualifies, we'll give her a free education, a job for life, and even a government backed pension plan! Commercial telepaths always earn fair wages because the Corps is their union. We'll even give her free medical care for life!"
When Moira emerged from her room, she wore a school uniform and black gloves. "Thank you, Mom and Dad," she said, "for getting me tested. I no longer feel so alone, because I'm at school with others like me! I'm so proud to be a member of the Corps!"
"And we're proud of you, too!"
Andy ate in silence, then stomped back upstairs to his room. His parents would never be proud of him.
The day Andy returned to school, he was called out of class and asked to report to the principal's office.
Oh no, not again, he thought. I just got back here and already they've got something new against me.
Were they really going to demand he write an apology note to Patrick?
Never, he told himself. They can suspend me for the whole year and I'll never apologize to Patrick.
The principal stood next to a young woman in a sharp business suit. She had her back to the doorway, but he could see she wore black gloves.
Half the school had seen the fight. His friends must have told the teachers about his recent changes, and the principal had called the Corps. Was this a good thing or a bad thing?
The telepath was certainly exotic, in the way she stood, the clean lines of her suit, the otherworldly confidence with which she carried herself. She almost seemed to radiate with presence, in a way Andy could not describe. The principal seemed dull in comparison, like an ordinary rock next to a glittering diamond.
Andy cautiously stepped into the office, and the lady turned, saw him and smiled.
"You must be Andy," she said, knowing the answer before she asked.
He nodded, scared. "Yes ma'am."
"My name is Tess," she said, smiling. He noticed she wore a copper psi insignia badge on her suit.
"What did I do this time?" he asked cautiously, looking at the principal. "I just got back. I haven't gotten in any fights today. It's only 11:30."
"No, no, Andy, you're not in any trouble," Tess said, and looked at the principal with concern.
"If I'm not in any trouble, why I am here?" Andy looked from her to the principal and back.
"I'm here to give you some tests," replied Tess.
Andy swallowed. Could he fake his way out?
She motioned him over to a seat at the small conference table in the principal's office. The principal stood by the old-fashioned bookcase, clearly worried, her mouth in a tight frown.
She's never seen this before, Andy realized. Not the testing – she'd seen testing many times. She's never seen a test come back positive. She wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The principal shut the office door.
Andy sat. "So what if I know what people are thinking?" Andy asked. "That doesn't make me anything."
He knows! the principal thought in shock.
"Very good, Andy," Tess was saying. "That's exactly what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to test you, actually."
"I'm not getting suspended again?"
She smiled so sweetly.
Tess asked Andy to look her in the eye while they spoke. She asked similar questions to the ones he'd been asked in testing the year before – about his favorite vids, sports teams, about his hobbies and family – except back then, there had only been questions, and he'd never felt anything else before being let out with the others to play. Now, he felt intense attention in his mind. As he talked, Tess looked back at him, into him – assessing, measuring.
To anyone else, it might have looked like small talk, but Andy knew it wasn't.
"Have you been getting low grades in school lately?" Tess asked.
This was for the principal, he knew. The test was over, but the principal didn't know that. Tess wanted the principal to hear the truth.
You can trust me, her eyes said.
"Yeah, I wrote nonsense on my exams, so no one would think I was cheating."
"Have your friends noticed anything different about you?"
"They stopped talking to me, they laughed at me and called me a freak."
The principal stood a few paces off, the blood drained from her face, and she nervously twirled a ring around her finger, over and over.
One in a thousand… It's true, oh my God, we really do have a telepath in this town…? Here? In my school?
"You said, Andy, that sometimes, without meaning to, you would reply to what people were going to say before they said it?"
He nodded. "Or what they were reading, stuff like that."
"And have you ever looked in someone's mind for information that wasn't on the surface? It's OK if you have, you're not in any trouble."
He nodded. "Yeah, that's how I knew Patrick was going to try to kill me."
The principal's eyes darted to the door and back, like those of a caged animal.
"I actually want to congratulate you on your restraint, Andy," Tess replied.
"My what?" He goggled at her.
"You may not have realized it, but you could have accidentally seriously injured that boy with a thought, maybe even killed him – accidentally of course." Andy felt a twinge in his gut, knowing she knew exactly how he'd really been feeling during the fight. "You're very strong, and you haven't been trained. The Corps will train you."
"I could have what?"
The principal was shaking.
Tess looked up at her, though she still spoke to Andy. "I'm very glad your principal called the Corps before something very tragic happened to either of you. It always breaks my heart when we get those kinds of calls, knowing if we'd only been notified in time, we could have prevented it." She sighed. "We try so hard to reach children as quickly as possible... that's why we put out so many public service announcements. Every community is different. Sometimes we don't get the call until someone's injured or dead, usually the young telepath. It starts with bullying, but can escalate quickly."
Andy felt completely numb, inside and out. He stared at the grain of the wood in the principal's conference table, anything to take his mind off of what was happening.
She believed him about Patrick's intentions. She really believed him. She'd seen this before. She-
And he could have killed Patrick with his mind? Was this why his coach had talked about telepathy in terms of carrying a gun? Andy felt sick. That wasn't fair at all – Patrick didn't have to be "licensed," and he was the one who had been plotting murder.
Andy hoped he'd misunderstood.
Tess stood and asked Andy to leave the room for a moment, while she and the principal had a few words.
Restraint? he thought, staring at the landscape painting on the wall in the main office. She just congratulated me on restraint? I hope she tells my parents that!
After a few minutes, Tess joined him in the other room, and took him aside out in the hall.
"You're going to a new school, Andy," she said. "A school with kids like you. That's what I was talking to your principal about just now. You're special, Andy. You deserve to be in a school where people appreciate your gifts, all your gifts."
Andy thought about the public service announcement that he'd seen during supper a couple days earlier. "Everyone here hates me," he said.
"They don't understand you," she replied, sounding for a moment like the Psi Cop in the vid. "And they're jealous, because you have something they're never going to have. You're gifted, Andy. It's not going to be easy… it never is."
He nodded, uncomfortable. He didn't really want to go to a new school, even though things were bad at his present one. What if the new school was even worse? He wouldn't know anyone there. He didn't know what he wanted, other than for things to go back to the way they were before he had developed these new abilities.
But then Tess looked him in the eye, and he felt strangely safe. I understand you, the look said, and it was the first time he'd ever truly felt that way. She saw the pain he was in. She saw how unfairly his parents and coach were treating him.
Tess gently lay a hand on his shoulder, and even through the gloves, Andy felt a warm wave of comfort. Her radiance surrounded him, as if she was hugging him, even though she wasn't.
Andy felt something inside him shift, something in his chest he hadn't even realized he was carrying. He started to cry, and he didn't even know why. A cold, tight place in him melted, then overflowed.
She sees me, she really sees me. I'm not invisible. I'm not alone.
It was like being rescued by Mr. O'Neil, only more so.
It'll be all right, she said without speaking. No one will hit you anymore. All telepaths are family.
She knew about Patrick's bullying, but he could feel she also knew more – the times Andy's mother hit him as a child, his mother's volatile temper. He felt as if he was perched at the top of a rollercoaster, right before the plunge from the known into the unknown.
He stood crying in the hall outside the principal's office for what felt like half an hour, but maybe it was only several minutes. Time felt different. People walked past and stared for a moment, even his friend Geoff, but he didn't care. The world flowed around and past them, as if they had stepped out of time. Tess didn't move – her hand remained on his shoulder, her gentle, reassuring presence that everything was going to be all right now.
All telepaths are brothers and sisters, she was thinking. The Corps is Mother and Father. And we look after our own, Andy. We do.
The principal brought him out a box of facial tissues. When he at last dried his eyes for the last time, Tess took him to his locker to retrieve his things.
Geoff was standing there. "Is that a Psi Cop, Andy?" he asked, in disbelief, talking right past the tester as if she wasn't there.
"Oh, gosh, no," replied Tess. "I'm nowhere near strong enough to be a Psi Cop."
Geoff stared at her, then turned back to Andy. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't think you were really…" He paused, unsure what to say around Tess, if she could feel what he was thinking. "I didn't think that you could really be…" he looked back at Tess nervously, "-one of them."
Andy gathered his things in silence, thinking of the time on the bleachers, when he'd known what Geoff was reading. What was Geoff actually sorry for? Was he really sorry, or just scared of Tess?
Stay away from me, Andy, he'd said. Just stay away from me.
Geoff had believed it enough to treat Andy like dirt.
Andy slammed his locker shut. He had nothing more to say. It didn't even matter who had told the teachers about him while he was out – all that mattered was that Andy was leaving, and he wasn't looking back.
He was on a transport to the new school two days later.