TRYING HARD TO FOCUS
The gorilla who clung to the ceiling was wearing a Princeton t-shirt. It must have been an XXXXL. Exxxxelll. Exxxxelllent. That was funny. I laughed. He didn’t seem to mind. He just kept playing with his cigarette lighter, sparking tiny fireworks through the air. His glasses had thick, black frames. They made him look smart. Laughing made my head spin, so I closed my eyes.
He was gone when I woke up. The walls were still rippling. They always rippled. Sometimes, they hummed movie music. They’d been painted by Vincent Van Gogh. A fuzzy man wearing a vanilla coat came in through the door and gave me a sandwich. Grilled cheese. Gorrrilllad cheese. The dark and light-brown patterns looked like George Washington. The father of our country winked at me. George Winkington. Everyone knows he washed down the cherry cheese.
The cheese was sort of tangy.
That’s a taste. I rubbed my tongue across my front teeth and tried to remember the last time I’d tasted something. I knew I’d had other meals. I could remember the clack of a plastic knife and fork against a tray. But I couldn’t remember any tastes or smells. It was all cardboard. I stared at my right hand. My fingers grew longer. I stared harder. They snapped back. But the crumbs on my fingertips kept singing. It was a nice song about fractions.
I finished my sandwich and took another nap.
The walls didn’t ripple at all when I woke. Picasso had snuck in and painted over Van Gogh’s work. Vincent would be furious about that. Picasso better keep an eye on his ears.
I sat up to look around. My body got there first, so I waited for my head to catch up. There was nothing much to see in the room. A wooden chair. Walls made of cinder blocks. An open door to a bathroom. A small table. No gorilla. Too bad. He was funny.
I didn’t have any idea where I was. Or why. My brain started to spin, so I flopped back down. My pillow smelled like sweat.
I heard footsteps, followed by the swoosh of a bolt sliding free. I wasn’t in any shape to deal with people. As the door opened, I shut my eyes and slumped deeper into the mattress.
A hand touched my shoulder, and then shook it.
“Come on, Eddie. It’s time to play our game.”
Game? What was he talking about? I tried to think. It was like jogging under water. Or under syrup. Eddie. That was me. Eddie Thalmayer. I knew who I was. But I had no idea who this guy was or why he wanted to play a game.
I wasn’t going to do anything for him until I figured out what was happening. He shook my shoulder again. “Eddie . . . wake up. We have to move the marbles.”
Vague images drifted through my mind. Marbles rolling across a table or floating above it. And, sometimes, wires stuck to my head. It wasn’t a fun game.
The fingers tightened for a moment. My mind thought my shoulder should hurt, but my shoulder didn’t seem to agree. The guy let go, and I heard him walk toward the door. “Those idiots must have overmedicated him again.”
Overmedicated? Maybe I’d gotten sick or been in some kind of accident. But this didn’t smell or feel like a hospital room. After the guy left, I opened my eyes and studied the wall next to the bed. A half-dozen large, black ants, as big as robins, swarmed over it. They were transparent. Except for their hula skirts. I blinked hard and the ants faded. I blinked again and they vanished.
I ran my tongue against my teeth and found a couple of crumbs. They were silent.
I’d been given something that turned my brain to fuzzy mush. Why? So I could play a game with marbles? No. There had to be more to it than just that. I dug through the mist, searching for something solid.
The answer jolted my numb body and sluggish brain. I knew why I’d been drugged and locked up. It was payback. I was here because I’d killed that man.
CONVERSATION BETWEEN PAMELA
AND CORBIN THALMAYER DURING
A CAB RIDE TO PHILADELPHIA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN LATE MAY
PAMELA THALMAYER: I can’t stop thinking about it.
CORBIN THALMAYER: It’s hard. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to let go.
PAMELA THALMAYER: It’s my fault. I know it is. If only we’d paid more attention to Eddie. If only I’d been a better mother. We should never have let them send him to that school. That’s where he learned to be a criminal.
CORBIN THALMAYER: It’s not your fault. And it’s not my fault. I thought the school was good for him. He seemed so much better when he came home. At least, at first. There’s no way we could have known what was going on in his mind.
PAMELA THALMAYER: A mother should know. How could my son be capable of doing such an awful thing? How?
CORBIN THALMAYER: I don’t know. I guess we’ll never know.
THE GLASS MARBLE GAME
The memory of the murder was so brutal, I pushed it away. It couldn’t be real. It had to be like the gorilla. Or the ants. But the gorilla and the ants happened here, in this room of rippling walls. The other thing—that awful, bloody moment—that was before. I searched my memories to see what else was before. It was like star-gazing on a cloudy night. I caught small glimmers. Flickering patches of light. I felt that if I could just clear my mind, the patches would grow together and make sense. I wanted to plunge my head into an ice-cold stream and shock away the fog.
As I lay there staring at the ceiling, the door flew open. “Good. You’re awake.”
He caught me by surprise. I started to look at him. But something in my gut warned me I shouldn’t act alert. He thought I was overmedicated. But maybe I was undermedicated. My senses seemed clearer than before. I could feel an ache in my shoulder now—an ache that he’d caused. I turned my head toward him and then past the spot where he stood. Slowly, I let my eyes drift back, as if I was having trouble finding him.
Keeping my eyelids half shut, I scanned him for clues. His clothes didn’t tell me anything. White shirt. Blue tie. Dark blue jacket with gold buttons. Gray pants held up by a thin black belt. Polished black shoes. One of his shoes smiled at me, but I was beginning to learn what to ignore. Shoes couldn’t smile.
His hair was cut very short. His face had the sort of lines that came from a lifetime of scowling, but he was still a couple of years away from looking old. As my gaze flicked past his eyes, my stomach tightened like someone had jabbed me with a needle and injected poison into my gut.
A memory hit me. Years ago. There’d been a rabid dog in the street near the elementary school. The cops had shot it. All the kids went to see. They wouldn’t let us get too close, but I saw his eyes. Dead, mad eyes. I’d had nightmares about those eyes for weeks afterward. That’s what I was seeing now.
He looked like he was in shape. Not that I was planning to tackle him. The thought of violence brought back the image of the other man. And more memories. This guy—he’d been there, too.
I shuddered as the awful sound of snapping bones shot from the past, along with the scarlet splash of fresh blood. The snaps echoed and picked up the frantic rhythm of popcorn in the microwave. I gritted my teeth until the sound faded. I still didn’t know for sure whether the memory was real. The moment floated in my mind, a single scene of fear and death, unconnected with anything else.
He slid the table over to the side of the bed. “Sit up.”
He moved a step closer. “Ready?”
I shrugged, not sure how alert he expected me to be. Should I mumble? Babble? Drool?
He placed a cardboard box on the table, flipped the lid open, and plucked out a clear glass marble. My gut clenched even tighter at the sight of it. He put the marble on the left edge of the table. Then he took out a paper target and set it on the right side of the table. The box was large enough to hold a lot more than one marble, but I couldn’t see inside of it.
“Move the marble,” he said. “Lift it.”
I reached over to pick it up.
His hand shot out so fast I didn’t have time to react. I struggled to hide my panic as he clamped his fingers around my wrist. “Not like that, Eddie. You know the game, right?”
I nodded, though I had no idea what he meant.
He relaxed his grip. I let my hand drop to my lap. Not like that. Then how?
Another glimmer burst through the clouds. Not just a star. A galaxy. An amazing, swirling galaxy with five dazzling constellations. I fought to keep my face slack as the memories flooded me. I understood, now. He wanted me to move the marble the special way. But that was a secret. Only five people knew about my hidden talent—my friends from Edgeview Alternative School. Their names were too deep in my heart to ever disappear behind the clouds. Martin, Cheater, Torchie, Lucky, and Flinch. Were they here, too? My heart beat faster at the thought. I wanted to see them. I desperately needed to see them. But I hoped they weren’t locked up like me, doing tricks for . . . Bowdler. That’s what the guys in the lab coats called him.
I glanced up from the marble. “Huh?”
“You seem distracted. What’s wrong?” Bowdler asked.
I froze. I hadn’t realized I’d spoken his name out loud. Had I mentioned the others, too? I needed to give Bowdler an answer. “My dog,” I said, tossing out the first lie that came to mind. “Martin. He got shot. I miss him.”
“I’m sure you do.” He pointed to the marble. “But you’re starting to displease me. Let’s get back to the game.”
I remembered more. A swirling blur, like a TV show I’d halfway watched ten years ago. The game. He’d make me move the marble onto the target. Over and over. Roll it, float it, bounce it. There’d been all sorts of marbles. Glass. Steel. Pure black carbon. Plastic. Ceramic. I’d moved them all. Then he put up barriers. A sheet of glass. A cloth handkerchief. Metal foil. I guess he was testing to see what kind of stuff could block my power. But I could reach through anything. Glass. Steel. Flesh . . .
There were other tests, too. Distractions. Headphones with loud music. Noise. Blindfolds. Flashing lights. Strong odors.
I shuddered again as I remembered the electric shocks tingling through my arm, or the time the room smelled like ammonia. Sometimes, they’d attached electrodes to my head and printed out long strips of paper. There were several people who helped set up the equipment. They left the room before I moved the marbles. But Bowdler—he was always there for the marbles, and for all the unpleasant moments.
So he knew I could move things with my mind. There was no reason to pretend I couldn’t. If I did what he wanted, he’d leave, and then I’d have time to think.
Move the marble. No problem. I reached out toward it with my mind—just like someone would reach out with an invisible arm—except the arm is as long as I want, and there’s no limit to how many I have. I can be an octopus, or a hundred-handed giant like the ones in the Greek myths. Anything I can move with my muscles, I can move with my mind. The marble wouldn’t be a problem.
I reached out with my mind to lift the marble. But the marble didn’t rise. It didn’t even quiver. It lay there, as cold and silent as Bowdler. I clenched my teeth and tried again. Nothing. The air around me grew hot and damp. I wanted to try harder, but I didn’t know how. I was afraid to look at him. Afraid to tell him I couldn’t do it.
I stared at the marble and wondered whether I’d imagined everything. Maybe I didn’t have any power. Maybe none of my memories were real.
Martin, Cheater, Flinch, Torchie, and Lucky—had I dreamed all of them up? Had I invented their psychic powers, along with my own?
I wasn’t creative enough to do that. I could draw and I could paint. I was a pretty good artist. But I could never invent anything so amazing. Flinch could. Yeah, Flinch was creative enough to dream himself up. I’ll bet there was even a fancy word for that—dreaming yourself up. If there was, Cheater would know it. He knew all sorts of trivia. But if Flinch wasn’t real, how could he create himself?
Now I was definitely starting to sound crazy. Maybe that was the answer. Maybe I was just flat-out crazy.
“Excellent.” Bowdler flashed a thin smile in my direction, then reached inside the cardboard box. I expected him to pull something out, but he just fiddled around for a moment, then said, “Try again.”
This time, I had no trouble. I could feel my muscles unclench with relief as the marble rose. I floated it toward the target. But when it was halfway there, the marble dropped to the table.
I flinched as Bowdler pulled his hand from the box, expecting him to grab my wrist again. Instead, he scooped up the marble and the target, and put them away.
“Get some rest, my little puppet. Your real training is about to begin.” Humming, he pressed his palm against a metal plate by the door. The bolt slid open and he left the room.
I inched back along the mattress until I was wedged in the corner and hugged my knees tight against my chest, trying to vanish inside myself. This can’t be happening. I dug my nails into my leg. It isn’t real. The pain, still dull and distant, was real enough.
This is happening.
I remembered something Cheater had said, back at Edgeview. I could picture us, sitting in Martin and Torchie’s room.
“If they find out about us, bad things are gonna happen. People hate anyone who’s different.”
“Yeah. They could cut us up to figure out how we work,” Lucky said.
“Or lock us in a room,” Cheater said. “You know, use us for weapons. Or as spies.”
“It’s like a secret weapon,” Lucky said. “It works best if nobody knows about it. We can’t tell anyone.”
Back then, I’d thought they were being paranoid. But someone had found out about my talent and locked me in a room. I hadn’t been cut up so far, but I had no idea what they were planning. I’d give anything to be with the guys right now. Even if we all had to go back to Edgeview, where we’d been dumped like unwanted animals. Even there, among the bullies and the stink of despair.
The stink of despair? Fancy words for a kid who was recently hallucinating gorillas. I realized my mind was working better. Why wasn’t I totally numbed by the drugs? Bowdler had said something about me getting too high a dose. That didn’t explain how I felt. . . . Maybe this time they’d given me too low a dose. It didn’t matter why I was coming out of the fog. All that mattered was that I wasn’t drugged now. At least, not completely. I still felt dizzy. Stray sounds—clicks and whistles and hums—floated through my mind. If I stared at my hand, the lines of my fingerprints seemed to whirl and spin. But at least I knew it was an illusion.
I needed to get away before they gave me another dose. With my powers, and a clear head, it would be easy to slip out of here. If I could trust my powers. I’d had a hard time moving the marble. Maybe the medicine had something to do with that, or I’d been distracted by the flood of memories. Or maybe Bowdler just shook me up so much I couldn’t think straight when he was around. I looked at the chair. That would be a good test. As I was about to slide it across the room, the door opened again and a guy in a lab coat came in. I think it was the same guy who’d brought me the sandwich. He was carrying a small tray. No food. All I saw was a paper cup.
“It’s time for your medicine,” he said, reaching for the cup.
Copyright © 2007 by David Lubar. All rights reserved.