The scout arrives.
The boy was sitting on their neighbor’s step a few houses down, watching two girls whip two long skipping ropes in time to a sing-song rhyme. Their braids danced around their heads, the beads on each braid clicking in time to the rope as it slapped the pavement. The boy watched an older girl jump in and skip double-dutch, laughing. Her hair, worn down and pin straight was blonde and waist length. It shone like sunshine on fresh rain. She had the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen, and he knew that Indie was in love with her.
The boy wished Indie could be sitting next to him watching the girls play. Ella watched the two younger girls during the day and was so good and kind with them. She reminded the boy of Wendy from Peter Pan. He had said that to Indie once and Indie had laughed.
“Then I’ll be her Peter Pan and take her to Never Neverland.” He had replied.
I’m a lost boy. The boy thought now.
“Hey, Rat.” He jumped as Jay sat next to him.
“Oh, hey.” He scooted to give his brother more room on the step. “No work today?”
“Nah, I took the afternoon off to spend with you.” The boy’s stomach flipped in excitement. He was afraid of Jay now, but he was still his brother and he loved him. “We gotta talk about important things.” His brother held out a stick of gum and he snatched it in greedy delight. He unwrapped the silver paper and stuffed the entire pink stick in his mouth and chewed slowly.
“Is Indie alright?” he asked Jay thickly around the gum. “I’m trying not to bother him.” He got quiet as shame stole over him.
“Yeah, he’s doing better. But you really did a number on him.” Jay did not soften the truth and it stung.
“I know. He tried to tell me. He said he felt sick when I did my tricks, but I always thought he was just bein’ a baby.” The boy admitted. He looked out at the street to the girls still skipping rope. Now Ella was turning rope and one of the other girls was skipping. He liked the way her pony beads sounded as she jumped up and down and wondered if she would give him one to keep.
Jay took out another piece of gum and unwrapped it with practiced ease. He took a bite of the stick and chewed slowly. His eyes tracked Ella as he thought. The boy saw him thinking of Ella in the same way the twins thought of Lissie: topless with wet lips pressed to his own. He flicked his mind into Jay’s, fast and sharp.
Stop it, Jay.
Jay glared down at him and nudged him with his elbow.
“You stop it, Rat. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong.”
“I think I would like to learn how to keep other people’s nasty thoughts out of my head. They make me feel funny in my tummy.” The boy added. Jay smiled; his annoyance shattered by his brother’s candour.
“Yeah, it makes me real uncomfortable knowin’ you can see what I’m thinkin’, especially if they’re thoughts about girls.”
“I see a lot of those thoughts.” The boy admitted. “Not just from you but the twins and Indie, and Pops. His are the worst because he looks at girls like Ella and Lissie the same way you do. He’s so old, Jay. Don’t he wanna think that way about Momma?” Jay roared in laughter and shook his head.
“I dunno, Rat. Pretty girls make a man of any age look. You don’t ever see a pretty girl and think it would be nice to have her hold your hand or pet your head?” Jay asked him and he sounded genuinely interested in the boy’s response.
“Well, sure. But not just girls. Sometimes I’m real thankful that I’m Indie’s brother and get to snuggle him.” The boy knew it wasn’t the same way that Jay felt for girls, but it was the closest he felt to what his brothers felt. Jay chewed his gum with his mouth open and grinned.
“What do you think about boys? You think you might want a boy to kiss you?” he teased.
“I wouldn’t mind. I saw Adam and Ian kiss once and it made my tummy feel the same funny feeling when I see one of the twins kiss Lissie or whatever. Kissin’ makes me feel funny no matter who’s doin’ it.”
“Well, that’s alright, I ‘spose. You got time before you gotta worry about kissin’ people.” They sat in silence again, watching the girls take turns skipping. Jay broke their comfortable silence first.
“What would you do if you found people like you, Rat?” The boy didn’t have to think about his answer. It was a question he had been asking himself for a couple of days, since he had hurt his brother.
“I would ask them how to keep from hurting Indie.” The reply rushed out of him like a wish.
“What would you do to be able to stop hurting Indie when you did your tricks?” Jay asked him in earnest. His tone made the boy looked up at him.
“I dunno, Jay. I would like that a lot but…” he left his thought unfinished. He wouldn’t want to hurt other people instead of Indie and he wouldn’t want to send Indie away. He just shrugged his tiny shoulders and sighed. “I guess I’d do anything.”
“Because I met a man the other night that says he can help you learn. In fact, he would give Momma and Pops a lot of money if they just let him test you to see if you’re special in the same way he is.” Jay said to his brother. His eyes never left his tiny face.
“He can do things, too?” The boy asked in surprise. Jay nodded and popped his gum.
“His name is Mr. Avery and he could read my thoughts, just like you can.” His eyes left the boy’s briefly. The images of Jay and Ella flooded him before he shut them off. “He said he could keep you from hurtin’ Indie.”
“What kinda test is it? I ain’t even learned how to read that well yet.” His tiny frown was wrought with worry.
“I don’t think it’s a readin’ test, don’t worry.” His brother reassured him. “Maybe he just wants to see if you can see his thoughts or somethin’.”
“When is he comin’?” The boy asked.
“As soon as you ask Momma and Pops to have him come.” The boy tensed. He didn’t want to ask Pops for anything right now. Indie told him to keep his head down and not bother him. But Jay continued. “If you wanna help Indie, you gotta learn what this man knows, Rat.”
The boy watched as Ella looked at a slim watch on her wrist and exclaimed. She rounded up the other two girls and wound the two ropes up in neat coils. She picked up two pairs of shoes and a third, single shoe. As she looked around for one of the younger girls’ second shoe her eyes met the boy’s. She waved and smiled then waved again at Jay. He raised a hand in greeting and looked down to his brother. In his lap was the other shoe, covered in now-melting ice. The leather gleamed in the setting sun and the boy hopped up. He jogged to Ella and held out the shoe. She took it in hushed surprise.
“Sorry.” Was all he said and then turned and bolted back to his brother. “You didn’t feel me take that shoe out, did you Jay?”
A stern expression was on his face, but he shook his head.
“I didn’t, no.”
“I’ll ask Momma to call Mr. Avery. I’m getting better at this every day, but I don’t want to make no more mistakes.” He stood up and started off toward home, leaving Jay behind him in irritated unease.
Somehow, between his twisting the truth to both his mother and his little brother, his parents had agreed to ask Mr. Avery to test the boy. Jay knew it was the money that convinced their father, but it was Rat that convinced their mother. He called Mr. Avery and a date was set for two nights later.
“Why at night all the time?” Jay asked before hanging up. Mr. Avery laughed.
“I’m a very busy man, James.” Then the line clicked and went dead. Jay relayed the conversation to his family.
“He’s comin’ in two nights, nine o’clock sharp. He said that a man called a Scout would be with him to do the actual test, but that he would oversee everything himself.” His parents were on the couch in the living room, the twins were within view behind them at the kitchen table drawing. Indie, still pale and weak, sat wrapped in a heavy blanket on the floor next to the littlest one. Jay refused to address his father, instead deferring his mother.
“What about the money?” his father asked, giving away his single-mindedness. “He gonna bring that then, too?” Jay merely shook his head.
“He didn’t say, but I’m sure he will.”
“I’m gonna come home from work early that day.” Two declared.
“Seems like a good idea.” Toe added in agreement. Their father didn’t say anything more, just grunted in response. Jay took it as him granting his permission for their short day.
“I’ll do the same, then I guess.” Jay said. His mother’s face looked blank. She hadn’t said a word.
“Momma.” The boy said from the floor near her feet. “Please don’t think that. If the twins are here and you and Pops and Jay, nothin’ will happen.”
“Stop it, Rat.” Indie whispered. “You scare her when you do that stuff.” The boy shrunk into himself as though he had been hit.
“Sorry, Indie.” Jay watched them together and felt a sudden intense feeling of regret. He had never loved anyone the way that Rat and Indie loved each other and the twins, by definition, shared a special bond. That left him as the odd man out, always on the fringe of their family but constantly expected to pick up the pieces and pull them through tough times. Unfair was an understatement in his books.
The day finally came, and everyone was on edge. All four older brothers were home by noon, but their father worked his full shift, not walking in the door until well after seven. He looked angry and tired, not a lot different than usual but Jay prayed to whoever would listen that his father would keep his temper in check.
Jay watched from the living room window, posting himself there after dinner. Mr. Avery arrived exactly at nine in a black car. His driver let him out one side and a skeletally thin man emerged from the other.
Mr. Avery looked exactly as Jay remembered him: moonlight white skin, slicked back blonde hair and eyes the color of a cold winter sky. He looked tired again, though, as he had when he had approached Jay the first time. Glittery touches of tasteful jewelry flickered in the streetlight outside their home as he approached their door.
The other man, the suspected Scout, was taller than even Jay. He his hands were bony, and his face was gaunt. While Mr. Avery was dressed grandly, but normally, the scout wore a heavy black cloak, the hem traced in thin golden filigree. It looked out of place in the middle of summer in a tiny town in Indiana. Jay also saw him carrying a leather bag, much like a doctor from the 1800’s might have brought to a house-call. It immediately made Jay’s imagination run wild with what could be inside.
Mr. Avery knocked loudly, and Jay leapt up to answer. He felt that he would need to be the bridge to gap the two sides of this arrangement. He was glad for a role to perform because waiting in the wings would have made him antsy.
“Mr. Avery. Come on in.” he stood aside and held his hand out.
“James. This is my associate, Mr…” Avery stopped and looked up at the man behind him.
“Mr. Ulrich.” The other man’s voice was deep and had a slight accent that Jay had never heard before. Mr. Avery smiled a lightless smile.
“Mr. Ulrich, this is Jay, the finder.” Mr. Avery pointed a creamy white hand at Jay and Mr. Ulrich nodded. “Where is your family?”
“They’re in the kitchen, waiting for you.” Jay led the way and found his parents and the youngest at the table. The twins flanked the back door, their arms crossed, looking like absurd guards. Indie, out of bed for the first time that day, was sitting on Rat’s small stool near the sink. When Jay and the guests entered the room, it felt full and overcrowded.
“That’s my mother, Dora. My father, James.” Jay pointed. He skipped over Rat and pointed at the twins. “Joe and Ben.” Then he indicated Indie near the floor. “Indiana.” Finally, he landed on the youngest and introduced him.
“So glad to meet you all.” Mr. Avery said in what sounded like a genuine pleasure. “This is Mr. Ulrich.” A ripple of nods made its way around the cramped kitchen.
“Would you like something to drink?” Jay’s mother asked and he could tell that she was trying her best to hide her anxiety with hospitality.
“That’s very kind of you, but we really are here on official business. In fact…” Mr. Avery motioned for Mr. Ulrich to set his bag down on the kitchen table. He pulled a packet of papers from a side pocket of the bag, neatly folded in thirds.
“This is your contract, stating that you allow us to test your son for any of the qualities we are looking for, up to and including taking a small blood sample for analysis.” Mr. Ulrich explained, carefully enunciating his words in his accented voice. He saw a few startled glances and smiled. “It’s common for people to have traits that we can detect in blood. We might be able to tell you more about him if we analyse his blood.”
“You will need to sign with my pen.” Mr. Avery withdrew a long black stick with a golden nib. Jay recognised it as a fountain pen. He handed the pen first to his mother, who looked down at the thick paper, and frowned.
“I can’t read this.” She looked up at Mr. Ulrich and her frowned deepened. He merely smiled again.
“It is in Latin. It merely says what I told you: you give consent to have your youngest tested for special traits.” He gestured to the paper again. Jay watched his mother hesitate and then sign her name with a quick scratch. The ink was dark red, thick and seeped into the paper slowly. It shone wetly on the paper for a minute before becoming a matte brownish-red.
“Ouch!” His mother dropped the pen and sucked on her finger. On the hand where she had signed, her pointer finger had a bright red dot that was slowly forming a droplet of ruby blood.
“Oh, do be careful. It’s a very sharp pen. I’m sorry.” Mr. Avery took out his silken handkerchief and passed it to Jay’s mother. She wiped her finger off and then stuck it in her mouth.
Jay’s father now had the pen in his hand. He looked once around the room, his eyes landing on Jay last, who only met his father’s stare and refused to look away. Then his father looked back down at the paper and replaced the pen. He hesitated again and looked up to Mr. Avery.
“The money?” he demanded curtly.
“Ah, yes. Here it is.” Mr. Avery took out a stack of money from his breast pocket. It looked to Jay like a lot less money than he had been given for his finder’s fee, the money that his father now had. “Two-thousand dollars in one-hundred-dollar bills.” Mr. Avery said, meeting Jay’s eyes, who was reminded that Avery could read his thoughts as good as or better than his own brother could.
He narrowed his eyes, suddenly seeing that Mr. Avery had deliberately given Jay his own two-thousand dollars in singles to make it seem like a more impressive amount of money. He had depended on Jay’s destitution to blind him. Jay let the anger inside wash over him once, a hot flash of fire in his gut that made him shift uncomfortably.
His father nodded, took the bundle of money and signed the contract. He too cut himself on the pen and sucked on his finger. Jay felt the atmosphere in the room change immediately into a business-like attitude.
“I will need the child to sit with me and the rest of you must be out of his sight behind him.” Mr. Ulrich said, and he rearranged the room to his liking. The boy now sat in a chair at the table with his back to the middle of the kitchen and his face toward the living room. Everyone else, Jay and Mr. Avery included, were instructed to huddle together behind him, as far back from the table as they could comfortably be.
“I will make silent eye contact with you and you will come tap the child’s shoulder once time and return to your place. Child, you will now tell me who is touching your shoulder, without looking.” Mr. Ulrich locked eyes first with Toe, who tapped the boy’s left shoulder.
“Toe. He and Two are lefties and always choose left.” The boy said confidently.
“How do you know which twin it was?” Mr. Ulrich quizzed.
“Toe feels different than Two. I dunno.” The boy frowned, showing that he was unsure how to explain it. “Toe is blue and Two is green. Toe is dots but Two is stripes. Just different.” Mr. Ulrich nodded and looked up again, this time making eye contact with the other twin. Two tapped him on the right shoulder.
“Two.” Mr. Ulrich nodded and looked up again. Jay’s mother stepped forward, careful to not let her cotton skirt rustle. She touched her son’s left shoulder and back up.
“Momma.” The boy said smiling. “She gentle, like lightness and sunshine.” Ulrich looked at another family member and Jay stepped forward. He touched his brother softly and backed up quickly.
“Jay.” The boy said succinctly. Mr. Ulrich looked up again, looking at Indie. Before he could even move, however, the boy smiled.
“You looked at Indie.” Mr. Ulrich looked at the boy and then glanced at Mr. Avery.
“Why do you think that?” the Scout asked the boy.
“Because I can hear Indie thinkin’. He’s harder than everyone else to shut out sometimes, but I don’t mind because he is my best friend and he hardly thinks mean things about anyone. He’s sick right now, that’s my fault, but that’s why you’re here. To help keep Indie safe.” The boy stopped to catch his breath.
“So, you have a special bond with your brother.” Mr. Ulrich stated. It was not a question. “How did you make him sick?” The boy immediately looked sad and guilty.
“I dunno how to explain it.” He turned and looked at Jay. “Jay said it was because I was takin’ from Indie things that Indie don’t got to give. I dunno what that means, though.” Ulrich looked askance at Jay, who nodded.
“I felt it when he was doin’ his things, but I fought it off. The twins said they felt it before, too.” Jay explained. Mr. Ulrich only nodded.
“This is not uncommon in siblings, however usually that means that all the siblings involved are also gifted. What traits do you posses?” He asked Indie who looked stunned. He shook his head.
“Nothin’. I just feel it when Rat does his tricks. The more he does them, the sicker I feel and then I pass out. Last time, it felt like something had squeezed my head until my nose popped. I bled all over the place. I still ain’t feelin’ great and that was going on a week ago now.” Jay saw his little brother hang his head as Indie talked.
“He knows how to leech? How is that even possible?” Mr. Avery demanded of his colleague in surprise. Mr. Ulrich merely shook his head in uncertainty.
“The next text is easy. You will tell me each image I think of. I’m going to change them faster and faster until you can’t keep up. You say stop when I have passed that threshold.” The boy nodded in understanding.
“Cat. Dog. Fish. Chicken. Pan. Spoon. Orange. The color green. Seventeen cows. Bird with rainbow feathers. Red, a lot of red. Just red, now. I don’t see nothin’ but red.” The boy recited. Jay had not felt anything when he had used his tricks. He was getting better.
“Excellent. I tricked you, and you caught it. That’s very good. There was nothing in those images but red.” Mr. Ulrich smiled at the boy and nodded. “You’re clever.” The boy beamed back.
“Now, child, are you able to make things disappear?” Mr. Ulrich inquired. The boy nodded. “Good, I would like you to do that to this.” He set a silver cube on the kitchen table. The boy reached his hand out for it and Ulrich stopped him. “With your mind, only.” The boy nodded again.
Jay felt the pull immediately. It was a soft tugging and pressure on his mind. He looked to Indie whose knees were now trembling.
“Wait!” the boy shouted and turned in his chair. “I’m sorry, Indie. I forgot to shut you out. I have been practicin’.” He turned back to the cube and closes his eyes. Jay felt the pull much stronger this time and his hands started to tremble. Next to him, Mr. Avery stiffened.
“Stop.” Mr. Ulrich instructed. Jay felt the pull slither off him. “You cannot take from your brothers to hide this. Use your own strength.” The boy screwed his face up and drew in his breath.
The cube immediately glowed and disappeared.
“If you touch the item, you are able to do this without borrowing so much from those around you?” Ulrich inquired. The boy nodded.
“It’s harder to push that special part of me out without touching things.” He admitted. He felt ashamed for some reason.
“Give me my cube back, but put in in my hand this time, not on the table.” Jay could tell that this was supposed to be different than putting it on the table by how Mr. Ulrich laid his hand out flat before him. His brother looked up shyly at the gaunt man before him.
“I ain’t never gived something before, only taken it out with my own hands.” He confessed.
“Try your best but remember to not take from your brothers.” Ulrich urged.
Jay felt a slight dizziness touch his head and then back up like it had been stung.
“Sorry, Jay.” Muttered his brother. The boy’s face scrunched up again and he drew in his breath. He raised his tiny hand and held his open palm up over Ulrich’s outstretched hand. A light began to grow between their hands and then the cube appeared in Ulrich’s hand, covered in frost.
Ulrich cried in surprise and flung the cube from him but caught it in his other hand. Where the cube had laid in his flat palm, a perfect square was burned black. A trail of black tracked down the heel of his hand to his wrist.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ulrich! I didn’t know that would hurt you!” The boy began to cry as he looked at the burnt mark on the man’s hand, now smoking. Ulrich merely shook his head dismissively and opened his leather bag. He pulled out an opaque metallic syringe and plunged it dramatically into his forearm. He depressed the plunger and extracted the needle. The veiny blackness eased back up his palm until all that was left was a faint square where the cube had landed.
“That’s quite alright. You gave me a startle, that’s all.” Mr. Ulrich explained. Jay saw that he was visibly shaken and struggling to rein in his stirred anxiety.
“Now, this next test is…” Mr. Ulrich stopped and glanced at Mr. Avery who nodded once. “It’s uncomfortable.” The boy’s already too-wide eyes got even wider.
“Are you gonna put that needle in my arm?” He gestured to the curious syringe that Ulrich had replaced in his leather bag.
“No. I’m going to make things disappear, but I am going to borrow from you. Resist me if you can.” He put various objects on the table between them from his bag; the cube, a pencil, strange looking coins, a stunning ring gemmed with a huge emerald colored stone.
“I can do that.” Jay was uncomfortable with the smile in his voice, his confidence bordered on arrogance.
“I will not give you a warning.” Mr. Ulrich said and then drew in a deep breath. The items began glowing and winking out of sight, one after another. Jay watched his smallest brother’s body immediately begin to tremble, his head wobbling drunkenly. Ulrich’s eyes widened briefly and then he set his mouth in a determined grimace. An animalistic scream tore through the child’s body and suddenly the air in the room felt as cold as a January morning. Jay’s breath blew out in puffs and chills set in immediately.
“Enough.” Mr. Avery said between clenched teeth. He seemed to be the only person in the room relatively unaffected by the ice-cold air, his breath invisible as he spoke. “He will hurt himself, Mr. Ulrich. Or us.”
“That was very impressive, child.” Ulrich was clearly having a hard time keeping his countenance, but Jay caught a surprised but pleased expression flit across his face before he composed it into careful neutrality.
“Anything else, Mr. Ulrich?” Avery asked, clearly ready to be done. His counterpart nodded.
“I would like to analyse your blood.” He addressed the child directly and it sounded like he was asking for permission.
“Will it hurt?” Jay’s baby brother asked, reminding them all that even if he was other-worldly, he was still a five-year-old boy afraid of pain.
“Have you ever pricked your finger on one of your mother’s sewing needles?” Ulrich asked him.
“’Course, but it doesn’t really hurt, just sorta like a surprise.”
“Just the same. Though, maybe less of a surprise since you are expecting it.” He drew out a silver needle that did look very much like one their mother’s sewing needles and a capped glass tube already half filled with clear liquid. Mr. Ulrich held out his large, thin hand for the boy’s tiny one and turned it over. He carefully pressed the tip of the needle to his finger and Jay heard his brother give a little gasp. The man drew the needle down, opening a small wound. The needle was lifted, and then Mr. Ulrich opened the tube. The boy’s finger was held over the tube and squeezed until the color drained from the tip of it and a large red drop formed. It dripped into the vial and Ulrich released his hand.
The boy didn’t ask for a cloth to wipe his finger, he didn’t ask for a bandage. Instead, he closed his eyes and held his hand to his chest. As he did this, Ulrich looked up from the tube he was shaking and stared at him. Mr. Avery caught sight of his colleague’s face and walked around the table to see what the boy was doing. Both men stared at the boy and the shock was too great to hide effectively.
“Let me see your hand.” Mr. Avery demanded. The boy opened his eyes and held out his hand slowly, shaking. He turned it over and looked at the back and then again to the palm. “Spectacular.” He breathed.
Jay felt himself fill with both excitement and dread, finally manifesting as a kind of anxious anger. His brother had clearly passed their tests and now Jay knew they would be making his parents an offer. He wondered if his parents would be given an opportunity to counter the offer, because Jay was sure as he as standing that they could get more out of this transaction than even he could dream.
The boy watched the two strangers pick up their things and leave. They each shook hands with first Jay then Pops then finally Momma. Mr. Avery said he would be in touch soon. The boy caught annoyance washing off Jay like lapping water.
“Jay, what you mad about?” He asked when their front door was shut and locked. His eldest brother rounded on him and snarled at him.
“Stay outta my head, you little shit.” He stomped past the boy and headed out the back door. His momma didn’t move to stop him, and Pops just sat in his chair in the living room, looking like he was trying to figure out something. His mother crossed her arms across her stomach and sighed deeply. She had been shaking since their guests had arrived and seemed to be finally relaxing. She sat on the couch and smiled at him.
“Bedtime, baby.” The boy just smiled back but didn’t move. He could not sleep now if he tried. He had never met someone that could do the things he could do, and it excited him. The only thing he was really puzzled by was how different Mr. Ulrich’s mind felt. When the boy extended the secret part of him and went into people’s heads, he could feel a warm light and a cold dark. Everyone around him, in fact, had roughly equal parts of both. But Mr. Ulrich, when he had been resisting him, was nothing but a hot, scorching fire. It was like he was being burned by the sun and a fire and a hot iron all at once, but inside his mind. It made him wonder if that was the part of himself that he needed to make stronger. Right now, the only time he felt that same hotness was when he healed someone.
“Bed.” His father said quietly when heard Jay come back in through the back door a few minutes later. His voice was flat, and he didn’t look at anyone. He didn’t move, just sat there and stared ahead of himself. “Now.” He insisted. The boy and his brothers moved, reluctantly, to their shared room, inadvertently falling in behind the youngest.
While they got ready for bed the boy tried to see into each of his brother’s mind. First, he tried Jay. He was met with a very stern look. He could clearly tell now when the boy was probing where he shouldn’t. But before leaving Jay alone he poked him with a little force and could sense a tenuous balance inside him. The heat of anger was tempered with a chilly calm.
He tried the twins, first one then the other. He was able to slip easily into their heads and see through their eyes. He discovered, while doing so, that they were moderately colorblind. Their minds felt the most level. It felt less like walking through different degrees of light and dark and more like a steady, even medium between the two. He giggled to himself as he watched them thinking similar thoughts, amazed at how easily they synched their conversation.
Indie’s mind was the most different. Instead of being able to easily slip into his mind, the boy felt Indie first resist him and then welcome him. It was as though the boy had knocked, and Indie had answered a secret door. His older brother didn’t look up from tying his pyjama pants but smiled. The boy smiled back, relishing the comfort of being with Indie in such a special way. It felt like being held by his brother, but even safer.
Inside Indie’s head, the heat and the cold were unbalanced. His mind felt chilly and shadowy. There were parts that were lit with a gentle heat but the balance that the boy could feel inside even Jay was missing.
He slowly reached further into Indie’s mind, tapping gently and watching his face for distress. First, he touched on a warm thought of Ella, her blue eyes lit up in joy. The pulled away from that private thought and tapped his invisible finger on a bright image of himself. He looked odd in Indie’s mind. He was covered in light, like he had seen some people portray Jesus in pictures. He looked older but still the same. Was this how Indie saw him all the time? He put the image away and touched another spot.
A jolt of pain ripped across Indie’s face and the boy felt it travel down his own spine. The spot he had touched seemed like a rotten floorboard, like a place that looked safe but was not stable. He used his gift to look around the space and frowned.
“Indie, what’s that?” he asked aloud as he withdrew himself from his brother’s mind.
“Hmm?” his brother asked, climbing slowly into bed. He looked sore and stiff still.
“That place in your mind. The rotten spot.” The boy insisted.
“I dunno know what you mean, Rat.” Indie yawned and closed his eyes. “Just a headache, maybe.”
The littlest brother was not reassured, however and took in a deep breath. He went slowly and carefully, trying to keep Indie from noticing him. He made it past Indie’s door and crept across his mind. He touched again, lightly and found the place that was bad. Indie scrunched his face in pain when he tapped it gently. It felt soft, like a rotten piece of fruit. The boy wondered if this was a sore that he could heal, like a cut.
The fire that allowed him to heal sparked into his invisible hand and he brought it near the sick place in Indie’s mind. He hadn’t ever tried to try to help anyone from the inside. He stopped himself and thought carefully.
If Indie had a place in his mind that was hurt, he might be able to fix it. If wounds of the mind worked like wounds on the skin, it would be easy for him to draw the edges of the soft rotted area closed. But what would he do if this wasn’t the same and he found out he couldn’t help Indie? He didn’t like being uncertain of himself.
“Lights out.” Jay said and strode to the switch by the door. Before flicking it, he peeled shirt off his back and tossed it at the foot of his bed. Jay stared at his brother and raised his eyebrows at him. The boy nodded and gave a half smile. Jay flipped the switch and a moment later, the boy heard his bed creak. He still had his invisible part inside of Indie’s head. The heat at the end of the incorporeal probe flared as he made his mind up. He touched it to the wound in Indie’s mind.
The first thing that happened was Indie gasped aloud, prompting the rest of the brothers to spring into action. Jay slammed the light back on and the twins leapt from their bunk, naked aside from their underwear. Next, the boy felt a jolt of pain so powerful he wet himself. The sick place in Indie’s mind drew on him and he fell the ground. The boy fought to pull himself free until he realized that he was healing the sore. He needed to replace the thing he had taken from Indie to fix it. Once he figured that out, he dug deeper inside himself. The cold, electric current he tried to draw from did nothing, worse still: the wound widened. He followed the spark he used to heal, traced it like a cable back to where it came from, deep within himself. The boy found a crack in the in him that he could push against and the heat simmered up. He punched the spot with force and blasted open a hole. The fire rushed into him, and pushed out, into Indie. The dark spot closed, the edges drawing closed finally and the boy felt the power between them ebb.
“Rat!” Indie shouted, sounding more energetic than he had in days. “What did you do?” he shrieked. Indie scooped up his tiny body and put his hand on his neck. The boy pushed his hand away.
“I’m ok, Indie. I fixed you again. I closed up the hole in you that was making you sick.” He surprised himself by sitting up and pulling Indie to his feet with him. “I feel…” he held his hands out in front of his face and saw they were steady. The boy looked inward and noticed that the river of fire he had tapped into to heal Indie was now flowing unchecked, just as his the icy one did. They ran in tandem, winding around each other in a soothing and energizing way. He looked around the room to each of his brothers. None of them seemed to have paid the price. He hadn’t borrowed from them.
“You did fix me; I can feel it. What did you do?” Indie asked in amazement.
“Mr. Ulrich’s mind was fiery. Mine has always been a little cold, like ice. When I take things from my secret place, they’re always covered coldness. I remembered that I used fire to heal your head and to help Jay with his shavin’ cut.” The boy slowed down so they all could follow him. “I found that tiny fire and I punched it. Just knocked a hole right through it to this big ol’ river of hotness.”
He struggled for the words but noticed that Indie was giving him words, silently, in his mind. “Not like lava. More like golden water. And now I got a hot golden river and an ice river that go through me. I can touch both at the same time.” He did and felt himself fill with so much lightness he had to look down to make sure his feet were still touching the floor.
“Can you put the fiery water back?” Jay asked him. He seemed to be worried. The boy felt inside himself again. He tried to push the golden river away from him, to pull himself away. Then he had an idea. He pulled the golden stream under the icy one and put it into his hiding place. As he did, he felt his heart trip like he had fallen down some stairs. He pulled the invisible hands out from the current and looked within himself. Yes, he had hidden most of the fiery river, only a faint light shone beneath the icy flow.
“I got it. I hid it. But it hurts my chest like having something big hidden.” He felt the effect of hiding the other part of him as an instant tap on his energy. His knees shook and Two reached out and caught him.
“I think we should sleep.” He said matter-of-factly to the boy.
“Let’s change you first and then lights out.” Toe added. With Indie’s help, the boy removed all his wet clothes and redressed in dry ones. Indie marched him to the bathroom and washed his face with a warm cloth. The boy noted that he looked like himself again and relief washed over him so powerful he started to tremble.
“I thought I killed you, Indie.” He confided. “I thought I broked somethin’ inside you that was makin’ you die.”
“I was feelin’ better every day, Rat. I was just so tired.” Indie calmed him and swept the boy’s hair off his face with a warm hand. “Whatever you did, though, fixed me right up. I feel better than before I got sick. We’re even Steven now.”
“If Mr. Avery wants to teach me how to use this thing, I want you to stay with me.” The boy said. He was sure that what it meant for him to be taught was for him to go away with Mr. Avery.
“I will if I’m allowed.” Indie promised him. He turned off the bathroom light and ushered the boy into the bedroom. They curled into their bed together, everything safe and right again.
“He will be given anything he wants to keep him happy while we train him to use his gifts to their maximum efficiency. He will want for nothing.”
That’s what the broker, Mr. Avery had told him when he had stopped him before they got into their car. Jay let the irritation fester until he could stand it no longer. He threw off his covers and stole from the room.
When he had approached Mr. Avery after the testing, he had intended to get a sense of what they might offer his parents so that he could make sure they were ready with a bigger counteroffer.
“What happens now?” He had asked, stopping Avery in the path in front of their house.
“You will wait for me to discuss the results with my colleagues and then an offer will be made. He is under our protection, temporarily, while we discuss the contract. By nature of this test tonight, he is immune the kidnappers until your family is given an offer in physical form of contract on paper.”
“What you gonna with my brother? What would happen if you made us an offer and we accepted?” Jay had demanded. Mr. Avery had looked surprised and then smug.
“Why, we would take him with us, of course.”
“And then what will happen?” Jay pressed.
“He will be given anything he wants to keep him happy while we train him to use his gifts to their maximum efficiency. He will want for nothing ever again.” Mr. Avery had retorted, and Jay knew without a doubt that he was goading him.
In the kitchen, Jay drew a cup of water from the tap and swished it around his mouth as he looked out into the moonlit backyard. He had to convince both of his parents separately. His mother had to be reassured that this was going to be the best for not only their little brother, but all of them. His father had to be pressured to ask for more than he was offered. And if Avery came at them with something insultingly low… Well, Jay had eyes. He saw how impressed they were with his brother. They wanted him. He could apply pressure there, too.
The night he had fought this with father, something inside of him had broke. Not just his temper when he had lashed out, but something else that had once kept him from falling into the darkness that he had inside. Now, he felt himself tumbling down the dark shaft into nothingness. Nothing mattered anymore but one thing: to get away, and if he could do it with money beyond imagining, that would be the best scenario.
He dumped the rest of the water down the sink and swallowed the mouthful. Jay realized that the night seemed very quiet, like all the noise that was outside was shut off. He thought of what Mr. Avery had said about his brother being immune from the people stealing kids. Was this eerie silence part of that protection? Things were snowballing around him, events that he couldn’t stop to process, or he would go crazy. He focused on his end goal, the only thing that was real to him.
Escape. Jay reminded himself as he padded back to the bedroom. He threw himself in his bed, forgoing his covers, and put his hands behind his head. His bare chest, a sparse patch of hair in the middle, rose and fell with his breaths. He allowed himself fantastical thoughts of leaving forever, convincing Ella to go with him, for no other reason than to annoy Indie, as he pulled up in a shiny car. Smiling at how angry Indie would be at that, Jay closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Indie and the littlest brother sat side by side on the curb outside their house. The sun fell hotly on their black-haired heads and Indie resolved to ask their mother for a haircut for the baby soon. He himself was proud of his shoulder length curls. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and pulled a thin elastic off his wrist. He twisted his hair up in a tangled ponytail behind him and shook his head.
They had spent the morning sitting with Ella and her charges, laughing and talking. When the girls had gone in for lunch, the two brothers sat in comfortable silence that neither of them felt the need to break. Half an hour later Indie nudged his brother.
“I wanna ask Ella to go for a walk with me. Do you think she’d go with me?” The little boy wiggled uncomfortably.
“Are you gonna make her kiss you?” he asked honestly. Indie smiled.
“Nah, you can’t make anyone kiss you. It ain’t fun that way, for you or them.” Indie explained. “But if she let me, I’d like to kiss her.”
“Would Lissie be mad?” queried the boy. Indie’s annoyance was with himself more than his brother when he answered.
“No, she ain’t mean nothin’ to me and I ain’t mean nothin’ to her. It was just kissin’ and it wasn’t even good kissin’.” Indie stopped and blushed. “She got handsy and made me feel awful.”
“She hit you?” the boy asked incredulously. Indie’s face got redder.
“Never mind, Rat. Leave it.” Indie tried with all his might to keep the thoughts of Lissie’s groping out of his head. He could tell from the look his brother gave him that he had failed.
“Why’d she touch you like that?” Demanded the five-year-old.
“Leave it alone, Rat. Jesus.”
“Sorry, Indie. I can’t help when you send the things to me,” the boy apologized. Indie frowned. “I was tryin’ to keep them from you, though. I ain’t send nothin’ to you.”
“Oh! You’re not very good at that, are you?” the boy laughed, his giggles came from his core like a baby, innocent and joyful. “I could probably show you how.”
“How? I ain’t special like you are.” Indie was nervous to let his brother do any more experimenting until they had him under the guidance of Mr. Avery. But he was very curious if he could keep his brother from his mind, if only so he could daydream about kissing Ella in private.
“Everyone could probably do that part. It’s just like locking the door and making sure no one can creep past it. You were able to keep me out a little yesterday but once I saw that if I moved real slow-like you wouldn’t notice I was there and I could touch that sick part of your mind.”
“Sorry, Rat. I dunno. I would like to just do somethin’ normal today, you know? I’m real tired of this stuff for now.” Indie declined.
“Oh, yeah. Alright.” The boy looked a little deflated. He clearly loved to use this special part of him and sharing it with Indie made him so happy. Indie felt guilty and relented a little.
“When the girls get back from their lunch, let’s make them smile. You remember not to take from me, though, ok?” Indie suggested. His brother’s face lit up like a ray of light.
“Yes, please! That will be easy. Mr. Ulrich don’t know but he showed me how to keep myself to myself better than I was already doin’.”
True to his word, Indie let the boy show off for the girls when they came back. The little boy was an excellent showman. He had a very clever way of hiding his actual tricks with sleight of hand movements that would have fooled Indie himself if he didn’t know the truth. The boy had even figured out how to make sure the things he brought back were dry now. His glee when the girls would scream in excitement was incredible for the elder brother. Seeing both Ella and his brother shine brought tears to his eyes.
The boy was just bringing back a button made of shiny mother-of-pearl for the littlest of Ella’s charges when the boys heard their mother calling for them. The boy held his hand out to the little girl before him.
“Momma’s callin’. Thank you for letting me borrow your button.” The girl squealed when she opened her hand and the button was in her palm, never having opened it to receive it. She took off running, her sister just behind her. Indie waved to Ella, who gave him a shy smile, and followed his brother.
“Jay called me just a minute ago to say that Mr. Avery would be by again tonight.” His mother told him when got home. “He’s on his way home now.”
“Did he say what Mr. Avery wanted?” Indie asked her, suddenly nervous.
“No. But it’s gotta be his offer or whatever he said, isn’t it?” His mother chewed her lip, thinking. “Pops is gonna say yes.”
“Without even hearing what Mr. Avery has to tell us?” Indie asked in consternation.
“He said no matter what he says or offers, it will be better than what we got goin’ on now, which is a whole lot of nothin’,” She said. She headed to the kitchen and Indie followed her.
“I’ll help with dinner, Momma. You just tell me what we’re havin’ and I’ll do it.” Indie motioned for his mother to sit.
“You’re a good boy,” She said, visibly thankful for the help. “Just fry up them chops and make them greens.”
“Momma, that’s spinach, not greens,” Indie said, a smile in his voice.
“It don’t matter. Just toss them in butter and fry them up to go with the chops.” She sounded so tired that Indie felt guilty for not helping with the laundry that day.
“So, Pops will agree no matter what? Even if Mr. Avery wants to take him away? What about you, Momma? Rat!” he hollered. “Come chop onions for me!” He pulled out his mother’s kitchen knife, longer than his brother’s forearm by several inches and then a much smaller paring knife. He quickly snipped the ends off the onion on the counter and sliced it in half. He put it aside with the paring knife for his brother.
“I don’t know, Indie. If it would help him then he should go. But it would break my heart,” his mother admitted quietly.