Not all super powers are gifts.
Or so people used to think.
Not that anyone understood was my great, great, great, great (I’ve lost track—there’s supposed to be eight [or ten?] great’s) uncle Leonard could do. He just seemed to have a good sense of intuition with those he was close to.
And he and his wife had a ton of kids. Ten or something like that. And their kids who also had a bunch of kids? They were the ones who were like their dad.
The real surprise happened when two third cousins met and got married. They hadn’t even realized they were related (I mean, think about it—do you know your third cousins?). Their kids were the first ones where people took notice. When the scientists stepped in. The government.
None of us have really been free since then. Not until two years ago when I broke out with the rest of the group.
I gripped the steering wheel with my gloved hands. The leather squeaked under the pressure. It was the only clue to anyone paying attention. I hated any accidental touch with a stranger.
Hate’s a funny thing though. The scientists back at the lab told me the original mutation had been some random fluke. That was how it always worked—an accident in their DNA. An accident that allowed them to hold us all hostage. To breed us like cattle. To force us to work for them. Nothing compared to the hate I felt for them.
I took a deep breath. Thinking about that too much left me with a raging headache, and tonight I had to keep my focus. I was on a supply run (first time I’d been allowed back in public). We needed things and I had to get out and get back without anyone tracking me, or guessing who I was.
Not that most of the public knew about us. Sure, a couple of generations ago there had been news stories. Wild claims about what we could do, strange comparisons to those impossible mutations that people glorified in comic books. Reality was so much less fun.
The store was still lit, just twenty minutes until closing. Just as I’d timed it. I parked next to a lifted truck with a bumper stick proclaiming that the driver hunted wolves. I resisted the urge to take my key to it.
I had to peel off my gloves when I walked through the sliding doors. It was a little too warm for that to be normal.
The list in my pocket, on a crumpled piece of paper, had twenty items on it. That allowed me to take the express lane, and anything more might tip someone off that I was up to something.
Canned goods first. Mostly veggies, and a few fresh things as well. My mouth watered at the thought of a baked potato loaded with everything on it. How long since I’d had something that filling?
Too long. But it was worth it. Better than being a lab rat.
The medicine aisle gave me some trouble. I had to walk through it several times until I found the right stuff. The cold medicine would be invaluable at the compound, if only because it stunted our abilities. In a community of mind-readers, that meant peace unlike most of us could hope for.
I threw in chapstick before I could stop myself. My lips cracked and bled every day or two and I couldn’t handle it any longer.
Finally, I walked to the front. This was the hardest part. I could load my cart without ever having to speak with someone, but this store didn’t have self-checkout lanes. Which was why I’d been the one sent here. It had things we needed the other stores didn’t, but there were so many risks.
My cart had a wobbly wheel that listed to the right and squeaked as I walked to the front. Five minutes until closing.
The woman behind the conveyor belt read a magazine and glanced at her watch as I approached. Unloading my cart, she began ringing up my items as the register let out muted beeps.
I managed a weak grin as I walked up to pay. I had five crisp twenties in my wallet, each stolen, but I didn’t like to think of it that way. I’d spent the majority of my life working for the scientists without any kind of compensation. Same went for my parents, and everyone else back at the compound. Taking what was my due seemed like a much better way to phrase it.
The woman was efficient. Already most everything had been settled into white plastic bags, ready for me to collect. She didn’t do much more than glance at me as I waited.
I hoped the sweat gathering in my pits, along my lower back, didn’t show through.
Finally, she finished and turned the little screen with the total toward me without saying anything. I counted out the twenties on the little counter and let her collect them. Her hands stayed a safe distance from mine.
My total didn’t register until she counted it out for me, bills along the counter, which I snatched up and replaced in my wallet.
But the change. The total had included three cents, which I didn’t have, and meant I had $0.97 cents to contend with. And no way was she going to scatter that across her counter.
“You can just keep it.” I stepped away from her proffered handful of coins.
She shook her head. “It’s almost a dollar, you should just take it.” Finally a smile touched her face. For a second I looked at her and realized that she had been beautiful in her youth.
I tried to wave her off once more, but she leaned forward, grabbed my sleeve, and plunked my change into my palm. “You look like you could use it.”
Her skin was cool, papery in a way. Loose. And I could feel every one of her fingertips where they touched mine. My mind seized on hers.
He needs it. Obviously. Look at that sweater. Seen better days. Money could be stolen. But don’t think like that. Just let go of his hand.
Her internal voice was breathy. Young. As if her mind hadn’t quite caught up to the fact that her body no longer fit with her thoughts.
I gasped and my mouth dropped open. Every single time it happened, it still seemed odd. Wrong. No human was meant to hear those personal, private, things in another’s mind.
Look at him! So startled. Funny that an old woman would do that. His expression. Like I’m harming him. Let him go!
I jerked my hand, spilling pennies and dimes and quarters. I didn’t even look at where they fell. All I could see was the look on her face. The way her voice trailed through my thoughts like the tail of a comet.
Within moments I had my bags gathered and almost ran toward the door. I could feel the eyes of the woman on my back the whole way.
Outside, the dark cool of the parking lot remained too bright to hide in. I went back to the car and dropped the bags in the trunk before I slid into the driver’s seat. My instincts were to race from the lot as fast as I could, tires squealing. But that would only draw more attention.
What would the woman do? Call the cops? Could she have sensed anything about me? I didn’t think people could tell when I read their electrical impulses that made up their thoughts. But maybe they somehow knew, somehow sensed it.
Or she thought I was disturbed and needed to be taken care of.
It took a few deep breaths to calm the ragged feeling of her thoughts meeting mine. I could still feel the foreign nature of them, like I’d eaten something strange and the taste lingered on my tongue.
Somehow, I managed to keep my cool and back out of my parking spot. To ignore the giant truck with the hateful sticker and to make my way toward the exit. That meant crossing in front of the doors to the store. I did not want to look over. But I couldn’t not do it. I had to see what went on inside.
The woman stood with her face in the window, her nose almost pressed to the glass. She had a phone to her ear and I watched her jot down something as I went by. My license plate number.
I waited to rant until I got onto the road, zooming away from the store, from the woman, from her voice in my thoughts. Then I screamed obscenities until my voice went raw.
Heat and pressure built behind my eyes. I could feel it there and felt even worse. I hadn’t cried since I was a kid and they took me away from my mom when I aged out of the nursery.
And now what? I had to tell the others. Steal another car. Make sure I wasn’t tracked back to our camp. That wouldn’t be easy. Not alone.
But one thing was certain. I couldn’t be caught. I’d rather drive my car off a bridge. And if I had to, if I didn’t have any other choice, I’d use what I could do. Because even if touching someone was like willingly touching vomit, it made it impossible for anyone to deceive me.
Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:
>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.
>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA. For fun!
>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.
>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.
Find Meradeth Houston online at:www.MeradethHouston.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Amazon, Goodreads, and of course her blog!