by Selena Thomason
I remember clearly the first time it happened.
I was talking on the phone to my best friend Gertie. I don’t remember what we were discussing, only that it had seemed vitally important at the time.
Mom pounded on my bedroom door.
“I’m on the phone!” I yelled.
Much to my dismay, she came into my room. I stared at her like she was an idiot. “Didn’t you hear me say I was on the phone?”
“I don’t care, Gwyn. I want this room cleaned up right now.”
“I’ll do it later. Can’t you see I’m talking to Gertie?”
Mom began picking clothes up off the floor and throwing them into the hamper.
I tried to stop her, all the while I was listening to Gertie and complaining to Mom: “Hey, what are you doing? That’s not dirty. I’m gonna wear that tomorrow.” Finally, I wrenched the clothes from her grasp and yelled, “Leave my stuff alone!” I had completely forgotten that Gertie was on the other end of the phone line and that it was her ear I was shouting into.
But Mom heard me as well. She stopped talking. She stopped picking up clothes. She stood perfectly still and didn’t say a word.
That’s when it happened. I heard my mom think, I should never have gotten married. Her thoughts sounded clearly in my mind. Why did I? I gave up, got married, and had kids. I could have been a ballerina. I could have been so much more. Why did I have to go and ruin my life like that?
I stared at her. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her lips hadn’t moved, but her face showed the truth of the words. She turned away and walked out of the room in silence.
I was so stunned that I forgot about Gertie and hung up the phone. I fervently hoped it was just a one-time fluke, some strange confluence of circumstances. But fate wasn’t so kind.
The next day at school I found that walking the hall was like running a gauntlet of criticism. Who knew there were so many things wrong with me—with the way I looked, the way I dressed, even the way I walked? It seemed everyone had something bad to think about me.
I thought I was safe once I got to English class. I was good at English, and the teacher liked me. Plus all the other kids were focused on the test we were taking.
Ms. Monroe was at her desk grading papers. She looked up. Our eyes met and she smiled at me like she always did. Then I heard her think, Only three more weeks, then these brats will be someone else’s problem.
I was crushed. I had always liked Ms. Monroe. More importantly, I had thought she liked—us…me. I had no idea she was looking forward to summer as much as we were.
I started making up reasons not to go to school after that. I missed so many days that I almost failed the ninth grade. I also started keeping my room clean. I couldn’t bear to hear my mother’s unspoken disappointment.
At first I hated my telepathy. I hated being able to read the forbidden thoughts in people’s minds, the horrible things they thought but had the decency not to say. All the people who think it would be cool to read people’s minds don’t know what they’re talking about. If they suddenly had my “gift,” they wouldn’t want it either.
It was weeks before I finally heard someone think something nice about me. That’s when I began to realize that my gift wasn’t completely negative.
I was walking down the street and an old lady’s basket toppled over, spilling cat food and apples on the sidewalk. I helped her right the cart and stow all the items back into it. She thanked me out loud, but it was the man standing across the street who surprised me by thinking, What a nice young lady! I guess there is hope for the younger generation after all. I was so startled that I looked up at him. He smiled back at me.
The high lasted me most of the day, until I accidentally bumped into someone on the train and heard him snarl, Stupid klutz! as he said out loud, “No problem,” to my embarrassed apology.
The positive telepathy moment was short-lived, as was often the case. Most of the time, my gift felt like a curse. I think that’s why I tried every now and then to turn the gift to my advantage. I figured that for all the aggravation my gift brought me, I should get something good in return. Sometimes it worked, but at other times…
In my senior year I was failing math. I was also sitting just a few desks away from the class genius, Christine. I couldn’t see her paper, of course, but I didn’t need to. If I concentrated hard enough I could hear her work through the problems in her head.
I figured that if I could get an “A” on the midterm, then that would pull my grade up and I wouldn’t have to hear Mom’s disapproval when my report card came. I couldn’t bear to fail, especially now that I would—literally—never hear the end of it.
It seemed like such a good plan. I was beaming as I handed my surely A-level test to Mr. McSweeney.
I couldn’t have been more crushed when he handed it back to me the next day with a big, angry “F” across the top. After class I approached his desk, paper in hand, my heart and mind steeled against the unpleasantness I knew was coming.
“But Mr. McSweeney,” I stammered, “I got the answers right. How could you give me an ‘F’?”
“You cheated,” he replied matter-of-factly.
I started to object, but he waved me off. “Look, I know you cheated. I don’t know how you did it, but I know you cheated.” He looked down at my test briefly. He was disappointed in me; I could feel it and it just made matters worse. “Your answers are exactly the same as Christine’s,” he said finally. “Even the few that she got wrong.”
For several moments my mind was completely occupied by the impossible thought that Christine the Math Wiz had gotten some answers wrong.
“But I’m willing to give you another chance. If you want, I’ll give you tonight to study and you can take a make-up test tomorrow after school in an empty classroom with me keeping an eye on you the whole time.”
I wondered why he was giving me a second chance, why he wasn’t just sending me to detention. “Look Gwyn, I know math’s not really your thing. But you’re smart. You can do this if you just put in some extra effort.” He ran a hand through his red hair. “For me, it was geometry. I’m just no good at the whole spatial relationships thing. But I got it after a while; I just had to work a little harder. You,” he pointed at me, “you just have to work a little harder. So, what do you say? Tomorrow?”
“Sure. Tomorrow. Thanks, Mr. McSweeney. Thanks a lot.”
I studied like mad. The next day I took the test as offered. I was a nervous wreck. I could feel Mr. McSweeney’s eyes on me the whole time. He was still trying to figure out how I managed to copy Christine’s answers from three desks away.
I got a C-minus. Not good but not bad. At least I didn’t fail math.
I learned some math that semester but mostly I learned that if I tried to use my gift with selfish or nefarious intent that it was only going to end badly. I wish I could say that the math test alone taught me that, but in truth I tried a few more times before I finally gave up on turning the gift to my advantage.
I was between classes at college and I had just picked up lunch at the deli and claimed my favorite bench in the park. There was a woman sitting on a bench across the way. She looked ragged. She’s probably homeless, I realized. I dreaded hearing her thoughts and considered moving further away. I waited a few seconds. Her thoughts were strangely quiet so I decided to stay put.
As I dove into my ham and cheese sandwich I was disappointed to find it slathered with mustard. I hate mustard. I had asked for mayo.
I ate a little of the sandwich but couldn’t stand the taste of it, so I set it on the bench and focused on the chips instead. They were perfect and satisfying. I ate the whole bag.
As I sipped the rest of my tea and glanced at the newspaper, I heard the woman wonder if I was going to eat the rest of my sandwich. I looked up to see her gazing in my direction. Maybe she’ll throw the rest of it away, she hoped.
I could almost feel her hunger from across the path. Yet she hadn’t asked for anything. I respected that. So when it was time to head to my sociology class, I approached her, sandwich in hand.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She looked up at me. She was stunned, perhaps even afraid.
I tried to be as friendly and non-threatening as possible. “Do you like mustard? Because I ordered this sandwich and I asked for mayo but instead they gave me mustard, tons of it. And I hate mustard. I just can’t eat it, but I hate for it to go to waste. I didn’t even touch the second half of the sandwich. So I thought maybe if you liked mustard and hadn’t had lunch yet…I just hate for it to go to waste, you know.”
“I like mustard.”
“Fantastic, it’s all yours. I’m glad to be rid of it, to tell you the truth.” I placed the sandwich in her hands. “Well, have a good day then.”
As I walked away I heard her think, Strange lady.
That made me laugh. I was happy the rest of the day.
That’s when I realized that my gift might be of some use; that maybe there could be positives to outweigh the negatives. I started to look for ways to apply my gift in a positive way. Being able to use it to help people made the negatives, the horrible things I didn’t want to hear, a little easier to take.
The train was crowded. This was a bad idea, I realized too late. By the time I’d finished college I had learned to shut out some overheard thoughts but not all of them, and today the mental noise was really getting to me.
The people pressed against me, too close. Their thoughts were too loud to ignore. One person was worried about getting to work on time. She was running late and afraid that this time she was going to get fired. It made me check my watch. It wouldn’t do for me to be late on my first day at a new job. But I had plenty of time.
Another woman was desperately trying to get the attention of a man standing next to her. He was reading a book with one hand while holding on for dear life with the other. She was hoping he’d notice her and ask her for her number, but he was completely absorbed in his book.
The scene was strange to me because the woman was incredibly beautiful—movie star gorgeous, even. It was hard to imagine how she had acquired the desperate need for attention that came off her in waves. Surely someone that attractive got plenty of attention wherever she went. In fact, there was another guy closer to the door who had noticed her and was watching her intently.
I turned to get a look at him. That’s when I heard him think, If I can just get a little closer, I can grab that Palm Pilot out of her bag without anyone noticing.
I was stunned to realize I had completely misunderstood his intention. I looked at the woman’s shoulder bag and noticed that the zipper had come open. Her PDA was plainly visible in the gap. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the would-be thief slowly make his way towards us.
I tapped Madame Movie Star on the shoulder. She turned to me, clearly annoyed.
“Excuse me ma’am, but it looks like your Palm is about to fall out of your bag.”
I could feel the thief’s fury at my back. But I could also feel the woman’s panic and gratitude as she zippered up her bag. “Wow, thanks a lot,” she muttered to me.
I couldn’t help but smile when the object of her affection looked up from his book to say, “Yeah, you sure wouldn’t want to lose your PDA. I’d be lost without mine.”
They were soon discussing the pros and cons of the different types of handhelds. The woman basked in his attention. They were still talking when I left the train. By the door, the would-be thief glowered at me as I passed. But I didn’t mind, I had put my gift to good use. I had averted a theft and maybe even brought two people together. It wasn’t even 9 o’clock and already it was a good day. No matter what happened at work, nothing could take that away from me.
The rush was so positive and strong that I decided it was worth taking the train every day. Sure it was crowded and noisy, but it also gave me ample opportunity to do good with the gift I had resented for so long. That was well worth the added mental noise.
A young woman came into Helping Hand, the non-profit where I worked. She was struggling financially and wanted us to give her some money for food. In my head I could hear that what she really was thinking was, I need a fix. Just give me some cash so I can get a fix.
What she said to me, though, was, “I haven’t eaten anything in days. Can you give me twenty bucks so I can get something to eat?”
“Sure.” I reached into my desk and handed her a packet from my snack stash. “Here’s some peanut butter crackers for right now. Later, we can go to the store together and get you some groceries.”
Lisa stared at the crackers but didn’t open them. “No, you don’t have to. I can do it. I just need the cash, you know, just a little cash.”
“Look, Lisa, I’ll make you a deal. There’s the guy here at the center, Mike Martin. He’s got a class on Wednesday afternoons. You can start today. You go this afternoon, and after class we’ll go to the grocery store.”
“I don’t need a class! All I need is a little money.”
“Lisa, I’m not giving you any cash.”
“But you’re supposed to help me!”
“I am helping you. You don’t see it now but you will later. You can’t con me Lisa, so just give it up. I know what you want the cash for and that’s why I’m not giving it to you.” Lisa deflated angrily into her chair. “So, do you want the groceries or not?”
Helping Hand had been a good choice for me. Knowing what people were thinking made it easier to help them. So often people can’t or won’t tell you what they need, or what’s really going on. I was so good at getting to the real issue that my co-workers sometimes joked that I was a mind reader. That always made me nervous. I tried to laugh like it was a ridiculous idea.
Of course, I never told them the truth. It would just freak them out and make them self-conscious. I learned over the years that something being true is not reason enough to say it, it should also be helpful and kind. I heard all manner of things that were true but not appropriate. I had resolved not to inflict the same on others.
Instead when people commented on how easily I seemed to read people, I said it was all the psychology and sociology classes I took in college that gave me the edge, that I had learned to read people’s body language, vocal tone, and all that. People seemed to accept that. I was relieved no one pressed it. And I was careful not to show my skills too often or use my gift to take advantage of others.
Thankfully, as I got older, I got better at blocking out people’s stray thoughts, which came in handy for riding the subway and being in other crowded places, but also for allowing people some privacy. I didn’t want to hear everything. I only wanted to hear what might be helpful.
I’ll never get used to it though, this unintentional eavesdropping on people’s inner monologues. I’ve developed a thicker skin over the years, and I know I shouldn’t be so stung by other people’s opinions of me. But it still hurts to hear their unkind thoughts.
At least now I’ve found a positive use for my gift. That makes the never-ending thought barbs almost bearable. It’s taken a while, but the ability I spent years resenting has finally proved to be worth the trouble.
Oh, and my mom? I do listen in every now and then whenever I need a boost. Seems she’s super proud of the person I’ve become since high school. I guess, unlike the gift, that was just a phase of life we had to go through.
© 2007 by Selena Thomason
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Selena Thomason writes mostly science fiction, but sometimes feels called to other forms and genres. Her stories have been published in magazines such as The Literary Bone, Ray Gun Revival, VerbSap, and Alien Skin Magazine. Selena is Managing Editor of Dragons, Knights, and Angels magazine and the upcoming MindFlights, as well as an assistant editor and columnist at The Sword Review. Her published works are available at SelenaThomason.com.