The first chapter of Melders, concerning the adventures of Theodore Schwartz.
Theo Schwartz knew he was late. Had his roommate Liam not kept him up all night with some blasted conversation regarding Liam’s newest pet project in the mathematics department, Theo might have woken up on time to take the Chemical Engineering final examination. As it stood, he was attempting to balance his books, phone, and keys in one hand, and a cup of coffee and milkless cereal in the other, all while attempting to open the door to his dorm room.
“I could use some help here, Liam!” he said, exasperated at his friend who lay on the couch watching him struggle.
“Hmm?” Liam mumbled, feigning having just woken up. Theo knew better. He sensed a mischievous inner leprechaun at work in his dorm-mate’s mind.
“Open the door, Liam!”
Liam slowly rose and ambled over to the door, shuffling in his pajamas and socks. Theo had half a mind to dump his coffee onto Liam’s head, but he had no time to spare if he wanted to get to the test in time.
As soon as Liam opened the door with a slow, “Good luck, Theo” in his heavy Irish accent, Theo burst through the entranceway, only to promptly trip on some unseen object and lurch face-first toward the ground. In the instant before he slammed into the tiled floor, strangely, all he could think of was the coffee he knew would soon drench his body and books. With a heavy thud, Theo, his books, keys, phone, food, and coffee all slammed into the porcelain.
“What the –!” he gasped, turning to see a short, bearded janitor standing over him , holding the mop Theo had tripped over as he exited his dorm.
“I’m so sorry, sir!” the man apologized (insincerely, from the lack of any apology in his mind), offering a hand to help Theo to his feet. Theo took the proffered hand and gathered his scattered possessions. Miraculously, Theo noted with a silently grateful prayer, the coffee and cereal had spilled everywhere except on him. Without further ado, Theo dashed off through the ancient, labyrinthine dorm building, hoping against hope the exam proctor would discount his tardiness.
After a brief moment of consideration, Theo decided to run to the university rather than take a chance of finding a good parking spot. Luckily Theo’s dorm lay close to the science department, for only a few moments of pell-mell running (and undoubtedly looking like a madman to his colleagues) were required to bring him to the imposing red-brick building.
Theo nearly threw the front doors off their hinges as he ran through them with a stiff-arm, then dashed by the building’s collection of classrooms and auditoriums searching for the correct one. Finally, he found it at the very end of the hall. And the doors were locked.
“Come on!” Theo shouted, knowing that the proctor wouldn’t let him in. Not this proctor, at any rate. This proctor might not even let him in if he was ten minutes early, such was the mutual enmity between him and Theo. A knot in Theo’s chest tightened as he realized the implications of not taking the exam and the shame that came with the his sense that an old enemy stood silently laughing behind a closed door.
“Something wrong?” asked a man from behind Theo. He started and spun around, unaware of the man’s presence. The man carried the overstuffed briefcase of a professor, with the unkempt black hair and a shabby two-piece suit to match. Theo, however, felt the man’s mind didn’t fit that of a professor. To him, it felt...sharper, more defined.
“Sorry professor,” Theo began, “but I’m locked out of my Chemistry final.”
“Tardiness is not a virtue.” The professor reprimanded him with the ghost of a smile.
“I know, sir.” Theo conceded.
“But,” the man continued, “why don’t we let you in late, just this once?”
Theo smiled gratefully as the knot in his chest loosened. The professor strode past Theo, fiddled with the lock, then opened the door softly. He entered before Theo, and blocked the doorway before Theo could enter.
“Mr. Willoughby, is it?” Theo heard the professor address the proctor.
“Yes.” replied a snide voice, well-known to Theo. “What do you want?”
“I believe one of your pupils was left in the hallway this morning-” the professor began, stepping aside to reveal Theo, but Willoughby cut him off.
“Schwartz, I believe. Such a shame. But being late disqualifies him for this exam. Now please leave so we may begin the exam.”
In an instant, the professor’s voice took on a razor-thin edge, “Are you sure? You had better be if you’re talking to the Colorado State Education Inspector.”
Willoughby’s face drained of color, and he backed up a step, bumping a coffee cup on his desk that, much to Theo’s astonishment, exploded into fragments of porcelain. The proctor jumped, his eyes filled with surprise and fear.
“Fine, then.” said Willoughby shortly, “Schwartz, take a seat.” and more submissively, “I’m so very sorry, Inspector. Have a wonderful day!”
John nodded impetuously at the proctor, winked at Theo, and took his leave.
Theo, resisting the urge to grin from ear to ear, climbed into a seat near the rear of the lecture hall as the proctor began.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” announced Theo’s instructor with a pronounced frown, “Please take a seat. Today, as you all have surmised, will determine which of you earn your degrees, and which,” he paused with a shameless smile, “won’t. Before each of you lies a single problem — encased in a test tube. A random mixture of chemicals lies inside. You have three hours to tell me its exact composition. You all know precisely how I want you to do this, I should think. The entire lab is open. Begin.”
Each of the dozens of students in the classroom grabbed their vials and dashed for the adjoining laboratory and its equipment. Each but one.
Theo rose and walked leisurely toward the adjoining laboratory, much to his proctor’s puzzlement. As soon as he was out of his sight, Theo ducked out of a service door and out into the deserted quad. Walking around the perimeter of the brick building, he stretched in the early morning sunlight that he hadn’t had time to enjoy in his rush to arrive at the test. With a few glances to ensure nobody was observing him, he covertly slipped through a concealed side door in the brick face of the building and started to find himself face to face with a balding, rotund janitor carrying a broom.
“S’cuse me sir,” the man said before slipping out of the building past Theo.
“How did you get in there?” Theo called after him to no avail, for the janitor was already striding rapidly out of earshot into the maze of colleges and dormitories. Putting the interruption aside, Theo set to work on more important matters.
The room served as Theo’s workshop, though it was hardly more than a service closet in the side of the building, forgotten decades before Theo stumbled upon it in his freshman year of college and decided to make it his own. Yawning, he powered up his computer, flipped a few switches under a workbench, and reclined upon a decrepit sofa. Slowly, Theo watched his hidden lab come to life.
Overhead, incandescent bulbs flickered into being, casting homely yellow beams of light through the cramped room to reveal tables and shelves of projects half-finished, experiments yet to be recorded, and contraptions waiting to be tested.
Theo considered the proctor’s mysterious vial in his hand from his seat upon the sofa. Switching on a desk lamp, he held it up to the bulb, examining its contents and wondering... Would he be able to sense it correctly?
Theo caught sight of himself in the mirror that stood in a corner of his cramped workshop. Not for the first time, he considered the man that sat before him from an almost alien perspective. Six years ago, when he graduated high school, he might not have done so.
But that was six years ago. That was just the beginning.
In this secluded corner of the science building, Theo couldn’t sense any other minds. Such a circumstance stood to his advantage. Nobody’s thoughts could inadvertently intrude upon his own. The room stood as his one refuge of mental quiet in the loudest of worlds: a university campus. Elsewhere, their voices, their thoughts, their minds pushed their way through into his if he didn’t take care. But not here, in his workshop, where he could let his mental guard down and work in peace.
Soon after moving to college during his eighteenth year. Theo began to notice coincidences. Abnormalities. Simply, he began to notice more. It began with the odd emotional sense that corresponded with the emotions of whoever he was near. If his classmate was angry, Theo could tell without even looking at the guy.
Theo, as a college freshman, knew that something was out of the ordinary, but dismissed it until the senses became more and more frequent, and his abilities more prominent. But, he recalled, his senses crept up on him. In no time, he developed the ability to sense precisely what his friends, professors, and employers were thinking, when they were thinking it.
The small flask of mysterious blue liquid seemed to taunt him. It would be much harder for Theo to decipher the intricacies of an inanimate object.
It was understandable that I freaked out, though Theo, remembering the tumultuous days of his late freshman year at the University. Madness, psychosis, schizophrenia, the list of possible diseases he had diagnosed himself with went on and on. But none truly applied, for finally, Theo began to accept and enjoy his expanded abilities and accept a new normality. Still, his perpetual search for explanations, for answers, for the reason — it never ended. Despite innumerable quests into research of psychics, telepathy, and the like, he had never uncovered what lay behind his own real powers.
Some amount of care had to be taken in exercising his senses, Theo knew, lest unwanted thoughts break into his mind at the wrong time. Privacy of others had to be maintained in order to preserve relationships, as he’d found out the hard way a number of times.
“Let’s go to the movies, then!” she had suggested vigorously.
“Well,” Theo hesitated, “We could do something else instead.”
She narrowed her eyes, “But you’ve been wanting to see the new one for ages. That’s all you talk about.”
“Only because you love the books,” he protested, but she dismissed it.
“Look, I know you want to go to the movies, so let’s just do it! It’ll be fun.”
But Theo knew otherwise. “You abhor the theaters,” he pointed out.
“Do not. When have I ever told you that?”
“I just know.”
Needless to say, their relationship did not last long. Theo didn’t recall the weeks following the movie debacle fondly, but they did teach him an important lesson: sometimes it’s better not to know what’s going on in there. Still, his senses had their uses. Many, many uses, thought Theo with a faint smile, recalling the many contests and struggles his insights had won him, if not always fairly.
In Theo’s hand lay the key to his Master’s degree.
Yet there in the mirror lay a human face with decidedly inhuman abilities. It smiled as Theo did the same. It was time to get to work.
Sensing inanimate objects always proved incredibly more difficult than sensing people, as Theo found during his first exploits in putting his abilities towards his scientific studies. He had tested the process before on a variety of mixtures, from juice to gasoline, but this vial held the crucial test.
And so he began. Closing his eyes, Theo felt the test tube in his hand both physically and mentally. But now, instead of letting others’ thoughts bombard him, he prodded the unassuming blue mixture in just the right way; slowly, its nature revealed itself to him, piece by piece. Bonds, atoms, viscosity, reactions…
In a flash, Theo knew the answer, and exclaimed in triumph, “Beat that, Willoughby!”
Willoughby’s words echoed back to Theo, four years after their first confrontation. During Theo’s sophomore year, he had had the misfortune to receive the school’s least favorite teacher as his Chem 201 instructor. The two immediately hit it off badly.
The man’s acidic, snide voice echoed through Theo’s memories, “Schwartz, this is the wrong derivation, you fool!” The mental stench of Willoughby’s persona wafted towards Theo. He couldn’t help but flinch upon feeling it.
“No.” came Theo’s reply, “This is the correct solution, but you can’t see the logic.”
“Theodore, I do not think you’ll ever make anything of yourself in this field if you continue to pester me with your illogic.”
Theo felt a lie burst from Willoughby’s atrophied mind, and decided to explore into it further.
“Professor, you are incorrect again. You fear that I will surpass and embarrass you in front of important people that will realize that you are truly a greedy old fool.”
Needless to say, the two never managed to coexist peacefully.
Willoughby never forgave Theo, who barely passed the class with the dubious title of ‘teacher’s most-hated’. Later teachers fortunately proved less disdainful of Theo’s unconventional solutions.
In his personal lab, Theo pushed away his old memories, stood, and walked over to his desk to scribble furiously on a scrap piece of paper. Soon enough, he would have to reenter the examination room, finish his analysis of the mixture (his senses could only tell him so much), and report his results to Willoughby.
Unbidden as he wrote up his calculations, the unexpected janitor inside his laboratory flashed through Theo’s mind. How did he find this place? he thought, but no answer presented itself. The room was unmarked on the building blueprints, as Theo had assured himself years earlier. In addition, the entrance was heavily camouflaged and shielded from nearly any view. Still, the janitor had found it. Theo concluded that the janitor had seen him enter the room earlier, and become suspicious. At any rate, it wouldn’t matter. Soon enough, Theo would be leaving the University.
A buzzing noise interrupted his thoughts. Theo’s phone was ringing from its position on the workbench. His mother, Catherine’s number flashed on the device’s face.
“Hello?” Theo answered.
“Good morning Theo!” her cheerful voice said, “How’s it going with finals?”
“Well, I’m right in the middle of Chem right now…”
“If this is a bad time-” she began, but Theo cut her off.
“No! No! It’s fine. Actually, I’m just about done. So what’s going on?”
“Does something always have to be going on for me to call you?” she asked, thinly veiled humor evident in her voice. Theo conceded the point.
And so they began following a meandering conversation. Theo knew Catherine didn’t talk with him as much as she would like. Between college and her swing shift, little time remained for communication.
So they packed as much about their respective lives into a few minutes as possible. Catherine talked about work, hiking with friends, the new table she was building… And Theo spoke of his classes, sports, and the like. The morning’s events, however, seemed to draw an inordinate amount of her concern.
“The weirdest things were happening this morning,” Theo said, intending to make his series of unfortunate events into a hilarious narrative for Catherine’s enjoyment, but something in his mom’s tone caught his ear.
“Really? How so?”
He began with the incident with the janitor outside his dorm room, the miraculous coffee spill, and his run across campus. She didn’t say a word until he arrived at the professor who let him into the exam.
“And what did he look like?” she demanded, seriously.
“Um, black hair, brown eyes, long face…”
“Oh.” Catherine said shortly, “Oh my. Well, it was nice to talk to you. Love you!”
She rang off before Theo had a chance to return the farewell.
Theo set his phone down, mystified by his mother’s behavior. Being able to make neither head not tail of the matter, he reluctantly put it aside, and surveyed his workshop forlornly. After this week, after commencement, he planned to move out of the university for an internship with DuPont. Theo didn’t look forward to it; he much prefered his life at college, with its ever-changing schedule and blissfully nebulous future. After that, he would finish his doctorate elsewhere, which meant he faced the overwhelming task of disassembling his coveted workroom.
It posed a daunting task, but nevertheless, he had most of it sorted, labeled, and packed away within a further hour, a sense of melancholy sweeping over him.
Once again in the exam room, twenty minutes later, Theo found himself reciting the mixture’s ingredients to the procter, much to the surprise of his peers, who hadn’t even approached their answers yet.
“...and point-oh-oh-three moles of thiosulfate ion,” Theo finished, a faintly smug smile on his face.
“Wrong!” declared Willoughby loudly, his bushy eyebrows narrowed and lips set into a tight line.
“What? That’s impossible!” said Theo, stunned, “What was the answer?!”
“Your measurements were absolutely correct. And that’s the problem. I gave each and every one of you a solution whose ingredients absolutely cannot be determined without the right equipment. That’s what tipped me off. I removed all of the best equipment from the lab so that you rats wouldn’t have such an easy time ‘improvising’ with shortcuts!” the proctor stood up and leaned in towards Theo, who felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. Heads were beginning to pop out of doorways to watch what promised to be a fine shouting match. Each knew of Theo and Willoughby’s opinion of the other.
The procter continued, his face turning red from anger, “There is no way in hell you could have gotten those numbers with anything less than government-grade analysis equipment, and certainly not with the methods you were supposed to follow!”
Theo, stirred to anger himself, shouted, “For your information, I used methods you couldn’t dream of, and ideas you can’t begin to process. It doesn’t matter how I got my answer, the fact of the matter is, I’m right!”
“Sorry, but no.” said the proctor sarcastically, “It looks like I’m the one who set the test, I’m the one who’s grading the test, and I’M the one who’s failing you on the final!”
More students edged around the doorway to the lab to watch the two combatants. Theo stared through the other man’s beady little eyes for a long moment, attempting to formulate a rebuttal and finding none, until he found a fragment of weakness in the man’s fragment of a heart…
“You’re afraid, aren’t you? You’re afraid someone has finally broken your precious machinations of failure,” Theo stated, then dove into the argument, into the man’s weakest spot, the area he sensed would crumble his opponent utterly, “Someone has finally been put in your shoes, into the spotlight, surrounded by those who refused to listen to groundbreaking work, laughing you out of the room, only to have him, the one you rejected, take the Nobel the next year, betraying you, his closest companion!” Theo could feel he was making progress, and detected more weaknesses, “Only to see him rise to the highest reaches of the field while you are relegated to...”
“STOP!” the proctor’s voice cracked with strain and emotion. His eyes were wide and scared, as those of a hunted animal, staring back at Theo, who stopped suddenly with the realization of what he’d done.
Theo stormed out of the classroom feeling dozens of eyes upon him. He took the hallway at a run, and streamed through the quad, away from the proctor, who had proven himself to be a perfect target, and yet another victim.