The next morning I knew I hadn’t been dreaming when I drowsily peeked out the window and saw a black stretch limousine waiting for me, the running engine belching exhaust and steam clouds into the frigid winter air. The driver was not waiting outside, standing by the car. I guess when the air can freeze exposed flesh, certain niceties don’t apply.
I let the curtains close and did a mad celebration within the house, pumping my fists and breaking into hysterical air guitar, leaping up and over my furniture, until I caught my ankle on a coffee table and went sprawling. I wasn’t dreaming. I could really do this, anytime I wanted.
I picked myself up from my sprawl on the carpet and got dressed. Just jeans, winter boots, a t-shirt, hoodie, and a thick winter coat, hat, and gloves. Now properly attired, I figured I should not be cold again.
Then I packed up my laptop and my backpack, stuffed my keys and wallet into my pockets, and could have lit a match for all I cared about what was left inside the house at that point.
I walked careful across the slick ice on my sidewalk, giving the limo door time to open and the chauffeur stepped out, a beefy black man dressed to the nines, with a big and welcoming smile. “Good morning, sir,” he said, and opened the door for me.
I stepped right into what was, for all intents and purposes, my limousine.
It was built from a BMW body, but I’m not enough of a motorhead to give you any more specifics than that. I was more concerned with what was going on inside. It was warm, the leather seats were comfortable and I sank right into them. The windows were tinted: I could see out, but no one could see in. It was a lounge on wheels, equipped with a wet bar, widescreen TV, gaming console, and from what the little control panel near the back was telling me, had its own WiFi.
My view of the driver disappeared as he got into the driver’s side, as the divider was already rolled up, but I heard his voice over the intercom. “Where can I take you, sir?”
I looked around and found the intercom button. “My name is Lance Thorn,” I said. “If that’s easier.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thorn. That does make it easier.”
Mr. Thorn. Wow. I could not hide my smile. “I’m going shopping at the Mall. What do I call you?”
“My name is Terrence, Mr. Thorn. Pleased to meet you.”
He started driving, and I walked and scooted my way around inside the limo. “What’s the WiFi password?” I asked.
There was no answer, so I just tapped on the glass of the divider. Terrence rolled it down. “First time in a limo, Mr. Thorn?” From this proximity, the inside of the cab smelled like red licorice, and I could just see the corner of a bag of Twizzlers poking out from under a newspaper on the seat.
“Yeah,” I admitted. He had a cool vibe, and it was all professional and courteous. Giving him a brief scan, I sensed him to be a good-hearted fellow, with a wife and daughter, who considered himself like something of a Catholic priest at confession. No matter what kinds of things he witnessed happening in his limo, he never told anyone about them, even his wife. In his mind, his job was to be discrete and professional and efficient. He graded himself by that scale, and held it as a great honor. A mark of personal integrity.
Of course, just to balance the scales a bit, he also had a bit of an unhealthy appetite for his daughter’s sixteen-year-old friend. He had not acted on it, it was just something that he struggled with, and I mention it only because feelings like this are commonplace in people. It was an echo of what I had said to Ramesh. Inside, deep down, everyone has thoughts like this. I’m not saying we should judge them for it, but let’s not pretend they aren’t in there.
No one really wants to know what people are like inside, “deep down”, I assure you.
Ostensibly my reason for going to the mall was to go shopping, and this was true enough. But it was also my first time in a crowded place with the abilities of a mind-reader. I did not think I should squander the opportunity to be surrounded by a sea of minds, and get a sense for how things would be from now on.
I drew my share of looks. I kept my hat on to hide the worst scars on my head, but my face still looked like the fresh face of an accident victim. Thanks to my pulverized and now synthetic kneecap, I had a bit of a limp. A four year old with no candor whatsoever pointed me out to his Mama who looked at me, and then shushed her and started leading her away in the opposite direction.
Nice. Now I’m not just repellent to women, but to children as well.
I ducked in and bought a new smartphone. My old phone number had expired, which I took as a good thing, because I could not think of anyone, with the exception of my mother, who really needed the new number, anyway. I stopped by the men’s store, and bought three new suits. I got a hell of a discount. It was almost like I was stealing them. You just can’t account for the kindness and helpfulness of other people, I guess.
Then I bought a new stylish tweed winter coat at a secret discount rate and headed back to the limo, loaded for bear.
The mall was a sea of vibes. As I walked near the shoppers in the mall, or they walked by me, it was like another radio station just tuned in, and I could go from feeling happy, to frustrated, to impatient, to sad. It was a bit dizzying, but it was good practice for the real world. I started learning not so much to tune it out, but to recognize it for what it was. Just because the vibe was sad did not mean that I had to feel sad. It was more like the local weather, and I was getting rained on a bit. I scanned people’s heads in passing, just for recreation.
I played little games with myself, too. I remember standing alone, leaning against the railing on the third level, while the echo of people and their minds and moods swarmed below, eating an ice cream cone that an employee at the Coldstone Creamery had run over and let me have, which was certainly nice of him, but not at all unexpected. Over near the food court was a girl who was trying to convince her mother to let her go shopping for more grown up clothes, and she was clearly losing the argument. She was throwing out desperate, feeble, whining arguments, and her mother’s mind was rigid, unyielding, and locked in the pattern of seeing her daughter as a little girl. A pattern her teenage daughter was unconsciously doing everything in her power to reinforce.
It reminded me of similar struggles as a child, and I knew that the girl (whose name was Leslie, if you care) was getting teased at school about her clothes, which was a big part of her motivation. She did not want to tell her mom about it, because her mom worried enough, she thought, with her job and long hours, and because if she knew, her mom would just buy it for her and end up not eating dinner for a few nights in return. She wanted to buy her own clothes with her own money, and her mother did not want her to waste her money on clothes when she already thought she had clothes that fit her just fine right now.
Honestly, the little dramas we put ourselves through. And I could see how it would play out, if things went on their current course. The girl would feel resentful towards her mom, her mom would think of her daughter as a whining disrespectful brat, and Leslie would continue to be teased at school, possibly affecting her for the rest of her life over something stupid.
I could have just hopped into her mother’s mind, made a few suggestions, and she would have let Leslie do whatever she wanted. But I had always taken pride in the structure and architecture of my code, and I figured that this required a degree more finesse. If Leslie got her way after crying and acting like a child, it would send entirely the wrong message, to both of them.
Could I get Leslie to convince her mother, without doing a thing to her mother’s mind? I decided to find out, and dove in deep into Leslie’s teenage head. It was heartthrob posters, and bubble gum, and talk about boys, and talk about girls, and wow…just a lot of talk. Her thoughts just raced over topics faster than I could even follow them. I focused on the most important, the wellspring of resentment for her mother, frustration at being denied, and a sense that there was nothing she could do about it.
I brushed it aside, and implanted a suggestion.
“Mom?” Leslie said.
Her mom sighed. “What?”
“I’m sorry. But it is my money, you know.”
“We’ve talked about this, dear.”
“I know,” she said, and her lip quivered. I made another suggestion. “But you keep saying I need to act like a grownup. Shouldn’t I be able to spend my money, money that I earned, like a grownup? How do you think it makes me feel to be treated like a child like that, while you keep saying I should grow up?”
I checked in with her Mom, and that was it. My work was done. I backed out of Leslie’s and her mother’s mind, and watched the rest unfold.
“Hmmm,” her mother said. “That is a very grownup argument, sweetie.”
Leslie beamed. “Does that mean I can?”
“Don’t you have other things you’d rather spend your money on?”
“No. I like to shop for clothes. And I’ve never had the money to shop for my own clothes before.”
Her mother smiled, and gave her a hug, and she told her how she remembered being fifteen once. And then they walked off to the Gap or wherever it is that kids go these days to waste money on overpriced clothes.
See? I brought a mother and daughter closer together, and taught the daughter a little something about how adult conversations work. Sometimes mind control is a good thing.
I scanned several more people on the way back, but I had a raging headache, so I didn’t linger too long after that.
Terrence met me on my approach to the limo, and took my purchases from me, popping the trunk from his pocket, and laying them carefully in the back.
“Where to now, Mr. Thorn?”
“The Grand Hotel.”
Despite his professionalism, a question escaped his lips. “You aren’t going back home?”
“The Grand Hotel is home now, Terrence.”
“I see, sir.” He let me into the car, and I took a little nap. I woke up to him tapping on the glass of the window, and I stepped out into the cold. He already had my packages, but I had shouldered my backpack and laptop, and the doormen opened the doors for us as we moved into the lobby.
The Grand Hotel was built in 1912, and it’s just old, and grand (of course), and stately looking. The kind of place where you would not feel out of place in a smoking jacket. I walked up to the counter, and the man with the tiny gold stud in his ear who was behind the counter appeared to be about my age, late 20s, but he was a snappy dresser and as attentive and professional as any five-star hotel receptionist should be.
It occurred to me that with Terrence next to me, this is the first time that I would have an audience while doing my work. Oh well, fuck it. Terrence didn’t ask questions, and considered it a mark of personal pride to keep everything he saw while on the job to himself. Good boy, Terrence.
“Hello,” he said, before I could open my mouth. “Can I help you?”
I was already in his head, and it was an orderly place filled with obsessively-arranged grid squares, to give you an approximation of what it was like. He was standing just so behind the counter, and had risen to meet us when we had entered.
“Yes, I need a place to stay for awhile.”
“Have you stayed at the Grand Hotel before?”
What a strange question. Certainly, the Best Western had never asked me that. “Um, no, I have just heard good things about it, and I am selling my house. Thought I’d live here instead.”
“Ah,” the man, whose name was Chase, smiled. “We have some rooms available, although I am not sure about your budget.”
Oh, Chase, you smug little bitch of a man. I was in his head, remember, and despite the chauffeur at my side, he had a preconception that I might just be fucking with him. I didn’t talk like people he was accustomed to dealing with, and there was no employer to speak for my uncultured actions. I was here, alone, in a hotel that no one just up and decides to live in, and I was wasting his goddamned time.
But there was always the chance that I wasn’t, and he had his professional role to play.
“Let’s not worry about the budget,” I said, and I laid down my first bit of mental scripting into his brain. So far as he was concerned, asking me anything about money was now an unimportant question. A throbbing began in my temple.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I could put you on the second floor?”
“What about the penthouse?” I asked.
“The Presidential Suite is not available, I’m afraid,” he said, but there was more to it than that I realized, as his objections rose to the forefront of his brain. The Presidential Suite was permanently reserved for a favorite client of the hotel, a Chinese businessman who paid ridiculous sums of money to have it available whenever he came to visit.
The rest of the time it just sat vacant, or they’d photograph it to advertise how swanky the Grand Hotel was. The last time it had been used? I probed Chase’s mind a little and discovered that was about five years ago.
The Presidential Suite had been unused for five years, and might remain so for another five, all because some rich asshole was buying it up so that no one else could have it.
I figured it was high past time for someone to get some use out of it.
“Ah,” I said. “You sure about that?”
From Terrence’s perspective, Chase opened his mouth and then his mouth froze for a second, blinked, and then covered all of that with an abashed smile. “On second thought, I don’t think it will be a problem.”
He turned to the computer and punched in my name, then programmed and handed me a keycard. It was interesting watching him as the payment screen came up, and he should have asked me for my credit card, but I had already given him a ban against ever asking me about anything related to money. Faced with this conundrum, his conscious mind drew the conclusion that he would simply log it as ‘Manager Comp’ and set the checkout date to a time three years in the future.
Then he printed out the proof of transaction, and Terrence and I took my things up to the penthouse.
Terrence broke the silence in the elevator on the way up. “Mr. Thorn, I’ve just got to say…I’ve been a driver for some pretty tough customers, but I’ve never seen anyone change someone’s mind that quickly.”
How curious that phrase is when you really think about it, about changing someone’s mind. But I really didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “Mr. Reddy seemed to think you were someone really important. The arrangement you have with him, well…I’ve never heard of anything like that, either.”
“People like me,” I lied. “They have this strange way of wanting to help me. Who am I to question it?”
He had more questions, I knew, but he didn’t ask them, and the rest of the ride up the elevator was spent in professional silence.
And that is the story of how I upgraded from a townhouse to the Presidential Suite.