So let’s take stock of my situation at this point, shall we? I’m a single software developer who makes good money, but hates his life. I have two bosses, both of which loathe me but keep paying me because it’s too expensive to hire and train someone else who understands a black box compiler written by a former employee.
I have a cat, no car, and the crap friends I have mostly are people I know from work. My social life amounts to video games played with people online. I also have recently been the victim of a life-altering car accident that has shattered my body, scrambled my brains, and turned me into a mind-reader.
Knowing the last part, that I could read minds, made all the rest of it irrelevant.
My body continued to recover, to the point where the splints came off, and most of the bandages were removed, and I started getting trained in walking under my own power again. The headaches were no longer constant, but I came to realize that they came more often if I did too much mind-reading.
So about that. You must be wondering, what’s it like? Well let’s just say I didn’t miss video games. I didn’t miss TV, or the internet, or much of anything else. There are some people in this world whose real life is so shitty and depressing that even a hospital stay feels like a vacation. I was one of those people. But I also had one of the coolest new toys that any geek had ever imagined being given to them, and my toy was in my head. Unlike many toys, this one has never gotten old.
I began to focus my abilities, and learned more and more about them. The first task was to take care of the volume problem. To use a technical reference, because there really isn’t an analog for what I’m describing that you’d understand, after a few more nosebleeds I found the volume knob. The doctors scanned my brain under an MRI a hundred times, I’m sure, each time concerned about a ‘dark mass’ in my brain scans that would then recede or even vanish entirely upon the next viewing.
After awhile I told them that even if I had terminal brain cancer, I was done with people poking around inside my head. This was partly true, but I was also afraid that one poke or one snip too many, and suddenly this new wonderful ability I’d discovered would be gone, by accident, in the same way it came.
I no longer had trouble remembering the names of the nurses. I knew, in fact, far more about any of them than they’d be comfortable with my knowing. I couldn’t even look the redheaded older lady in the eye, because she had the filthiest mind I’d ever read. In her case, I’d have felt better off not knowing what was in her head, and it wasn’t the last time I’d wish that.
I felt my first few stabs of morality in those days. Did I have the right to pry into people’s minds without their knowledge? It bothered me a little, but not enough to resist the temptation of trying it out.
The thing is, I just had to know. There was still a part of me, the sane rational part, that told me I was out of my fucking mind. That I’d had some kind of psychotic break with reality, and was imagining all kinds of things that weren’t really true.
I checked out a book about palm reading from the library at the hospital. I’m not sure why they had it on the shelf, but as soon as I saw it I had an idea about how to confirm, to really know, whether I had this gift or not, without raising suspicion.
You probably see where this is going.
Four months after I’d been brought to the hospital, and a tentative three days away from release (so long as I had no more relapses), I had Nurse Dina in the room with me. There was snow on the ground outside my window, I was actually eating solid food and was craving a Big Mac so badly, but no one would smuggle it in for me. My mom had gone back home again, but when I got out of the hospital I was supposed to go and visit her.
Dina had pulled up a chair at my request, and sat next to the bed. I sat up, cross-legged upon it, no longer quite so feeble. The book of palmistry was next to me on the bed, and I had made a great show of reading it for everyone’s benefit. I held her palm in my hand, and it was nice, so nice. Her hand was soft and warm, and Dina was very nice to look at. Her eyes were large and blue, her makeup understated but impeccable, and her girlish lips were a subject of my dreams that I’m better off not telling you about. She was twenty-six, a former cheerleader with the figure to match. I’d developed something of a crush on her, particularly after being in her thoughts, which is a level of intimacy all of its own.
“So how do we start?” she asked, and her thoughts told me she was trying to decide if this was acceptable or not, or if she should be strictly professional and cold like Mary. It was just a quick scan, and I’d gotten good at doing it. Digging deep took a good deal of effort, but a quick graze across someone’s surface thoughts was second nature at that point.
“We already have,” I said. “Your name is Dina Carpenter. You were named for your grandmother Medina, who distinguished herself back in the nineteen-thirties in her small town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by being the first woman to own her own hair salon.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth popped open. “Oh my god, really?”
“I’m right, aren’t I?”
“You live at 8288 Cherryhill Drive. Your dog’s name is Spektor, a name your ex-boyfriend thought was cool, but which you think is kind of stupid. But now he won’t answer to anything else, and even though you love him, he’s a big slobbery reminder of the ex who dumped you.”
Her hand was flat in my palm and her mouth gaped and closed and gaped again, chest rising and falling. I tried not to be too distracted by it.
“You’ve got a sister named Rhea. You haven’t spoken in two months, since you told her that you don’t approve of her fiancé, Will…”
“Wait…” she said, and pulled her hand out of my grasp, sliding back away from me in the chair.
“…Because, even though you never told her, you know her fiancé got a bit too ‘hands on’ with you, the last time you came to visit. You haven’t told her, because you know it will hurt her, and because you feel guilty about it like you had something to do with it, because you do think he’s attractive, just a bad person…”
“How…are you…” She broke off, and her voice raised. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“It’s not your fault you know, Dina.”
“S-stop it…this is scary.”
I did not understand her reaction at the time, but I get it now. Thoughts are private, they are our sole refuge. They are the place we can go, and feel however we want to feel, and no one ever has to know, if we really want to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Once those secret thoughts are out in the open, the sense of fear and violation is innate. We are exposed, and we do not react well to feeling exposed.
I did not play the part of the fortune teller very well, I’ll admit, giving far too many specifics and not enough vagaries. I was a bit too eager, but I had to know. I had to know for sure.
I read her thoughts, and saw them quailing, her disbelief held up like a shield. She was struggling, searching, trying to find some way to rationalize what I knew. Perhaps he overheard me talking to Tess? she wondered.
But it kept coming up in her mind like a revolving door that she couldn’t find her way out of. She hadn’t told anyone about what Will did, about the time at her sister’s house he cornered her in the laundry room and came at her like someone in a sweaty romance novel. How she’d accepted his embrace at first, carried along by his passion, before some part of her mind screamed at her that this was wrong.
She had pulled back, and as he pursued her across the kitchen floor she had struck out with her foot and kicked him square in the balls, and then run away. That was the last time she saw Will, and her hurried explanation to her sister just said that something had come up.
Later she had tried to convince her sister that Will wasn’t any good, but without telling her sister about what he had done to her, her sister did not believe it and hung up on her.
She had not told anyone about that thing with Will, not a soul. It had been her own private shame, her own private crucible, and here the patient in room 21B had just told her that all of it was plainly visible on her palm.
She was at the point of considering that it was more likely that I was stalking her somehow than that I could actually read her palm. Which was not at all what I wanted.
I decided to abort my line of palm-reading inquiry. The test was a success so far as I was concerned, but Dina being pissed off or freaked out by me was not.
“I’m sorry, let’s stop,” I said.
She swallowed, staring at me like I was a live viper. “How did you do that?”
“A magician never reveals his secrets.”
“Come on!” she protested. “I know that book doesn’t have any instructions in it about how to read someone’s address on their palm!”
The problem with being in a field where you’re more intelligent than average, where the people you work with are less intelligent than average, is that you tend to underestimate the intelligence of others, while overestimating your own.
In retrospect, the simple realization of her having a medical degree, not to mention my actually being in her head, should have clued me in. My motivations were simply about testing, that’s what I thought then. That’s what I told myself.
But our own minds only make sense in retrospect, never in the moment. Let’s face it, I was showing off. I had a cool new toy, a superpower, and I wanted not only for me to know how cool it was, but for her to know it, too.
And I learned another lesson in that moment: People don’t like mind-readers. They like it when it’s fortune-telling, when it’s fun, and when a few startling observations can be made.
What they don’t like is you telling them about themselves with such a degree of accuracy that it is as if you hired a private detective to follow them around and record the most intimate details of their lives. Which was pretty much what I was doing, except I just sifted through her thoughts and lingered on the interesting bits.
I went in for a deeper scan to her thoughts this time, and in time with her feet shifting backwards across the floor, her thoughts were an open book. They weren’t words, so much as impulses. She had to get out of this room, right now. Something was wrong, something is wrong with this patient, he must be stalking me.
** Oh my god I can’t believe it! **
I winced at the volume, but she was practically screaming in her head. She was basically putting herself into mental shock, shuffling backwards, only moments away from turning down the hall and fleeing to the supply room, and breaking down into sobs.
From the bed, I reached out for her, shaking my head and so badly did I want her to stay that it was like I reached out with my will, too. I couldn’t stop her physically if she tried to run. She had a head start, I lacked the stamina for sprints, and it would just be freaking weird to chase her down when she was already scared of me in the first place.
But still, connected to her mind, I felt it. A ripple, a ripple in the great vast lake that was her mind, and the ripple felt like me.
And she stopped. I saw her thoughts, shimmer a bit, moving off of track. The train of her thought had moved off of the “run and panic” track, and onto the “stay and panic” track.
At that time, my mind suddenly shifted to the, “Oh no fucking way you’ve got to be kidding me” track.
“L-look…” I said, and my voice might have seemed to her like I was stammering in fear or surprise, but it was full-blown eagerness and excitement. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t be. There’s no way I could be this lucky. But there was only one way to find out.
“Why don’t you come back over here, and sit down?” I said.
She just blinked at me. I pondered for just a moment, and remembered how I’d reached out, how much I’d really wanted her to stay, how much of my emotional effort had been invested in wanting it to happen.
I smiled, and this time I tried to reach out again towards her like I had before. “C’mon, it’s cool. It was just a little fun.”
This time it worked, I felt the ripple in her mind again, the echo of whatever force I was exerting towards her, and since I was reading her mind I was feeling the secondary effects of my influence, just as she did. Her thoughts flickered off of the panic track altogether, and into curiosity.
She nodded, licked her dry lips and gave me a scared smile as she came back to sit down on the chair.
I grinned then as I have never grinned before in my life, ladies and gentlemen. To describe the supreme exultation I felt in that moment is impossible. My heart was beating like a triumphant drum, and the rush of blood to my head made me feel dizzy. I had fainted so often of late, I felt very close to it right then, but it was not that kind of attack.
“I was wondering…” I began, and knew that there was one way I could know for sure.
“Yes?” she said.
“You guys have been great. I did a stupid thing, and you gave me my life back. You’ve attended to my every need. Well…almost my every need. S-speaking of t-that…I’ve been here a long time, and I’m pretty l-l-lonely…” And then I lost my nerve, as evidenced by my rising stutter. You can probably see where I was going, and linked to her mind as my pause grew ever-longer, even she knew where I was going, but I just couldn’t bring myself to say it.
I felt like a Grade-A asshole for the inference even coming out of my mouth. The lowest scum of the earth for even considering making such a base proposal to such a nice person as Dina. At the very least, kicking the lowlife who tried to cheat on her sister in the balls was really cool. Cooler than anything I’d ever done. I looked away and then hated myself for adding, “Nevermind, sorry.”
I hadn’t disengaged from her mind. Dina was no idiot, as I’d discovered earlier, and it was pretty obvious where I was going. The first hurdle in her mind was all about her job and her career, as what I was proposing was a firing offense. The second hurdle was understandable outrage and a bit of disgust. I should be clear, though, there was of course that little buried part of her that considered it, just to be naughty, but she had not listened to that voice for most of her life, and wasn’t about to start now.
I was conscious of her standing up even though I wasn’t looking at her, and I knew she was about to leave.
I felt sick with horror, but almost feverish with arousal. This horror that hit me next is something I should explain, because I made several realizations in that life-defining moment.
Imagine that one day you discover you have the ability to not only read people’s minds, but control them, and make them do whatever you want.
Whatever you want. Think about it for a moment. I’ll wait.
In the real world, people will do what you convince them to do, or what they are already inclined to do. There’s a check and a balance inherent in this system. You are not to blame if you convince someone to do something stupid, they are. And no one needs to do anything they don’t want to do, because they govern their own minds and have the right to say no.
But what if you could make other people do whatever you want? Would you? Think carefully about your answer, and look deep into your soul, before you judge me.
I was filled with horror, because I knew I was not that strong, and even then I knew where this could go.
I could do whatever I wanted, and no one would ever know. To remove all responsibility from the equation completely, there weren't even laws on the books to handle what I could do. How does one even prove that in court?
"Your honor, the defendant used mind powers to coerce the plaintiff into doing something she didn't want to do."
I could just imagine the laughter in the courtroom.
I’ll spare you the suspense. I gave in to temptation, because there was no one to stop me but me, and no one who would ever know that I'd done it but me. I had to know, I just had to know for sure, how far I could go, if I wanted.
So how far could I get Dina to go? It turns out: all the way. If it makes you feel better, she truly enjoyed every minute of it.
But if you have to ask how I know that, you haven’t been paying attention.