This is a story I wrote for a fiction-writing class I'm taking. It's kind of long, but I like it. Criticism is welcome, of course.
I woke up with a red-hot knife of pain cutting through the sensitive bits in my head.
â€œJesus!â€ I screamed, sitting bolt upright and jamming the heels of my hands into my eyes.
I felt a word appear in my head, originating from somewhere outside. Sorry. The cutting ebbed somewhat, fading a little into the headache Iâ€™d had for the past three days, courtesy of the flu.
We went over this, I thought, hard and desperately, lowering my fists and pounding them on the mattress for emphasis that I doubted would carry over. I have a headache, you stay the fuck out of my head or you make it worse.
Iâ€™m sorry, came the answer like another blade behind my eyes. But I have a chemistry exam and I canâ€™t remember how to calculate bond order. Can you tell me how?
You woke me up to dig through my head for bond order? I responded, a little incredulous but not entirely surprised. I should have known Josh would need something like that, and sacrifice my comfort to get it.
Yeah, he answered, as gently as he could, which still wasnâ€™t very gentle.
You couldnâ€™t search anyone else? I asked.
I know your mind better than theirs, came the answer. Besides, I donâ€™t trust the people around me.
Well, the actual answer to the question was to take half of the difference between bonding electrons and anti-bonding electrons, but there was no way Josh would understand that in the early part of his general chemistry class. So what was the other way to do it, the easy way? I thought about it for a few seconds, and was just about to articulate the answer when Josh stabbed his way back in, saw the shape of my thought, gave a hurried thanks and an invitation to lunch later that day and slid out of my head, leaving me with my baseline headache again and fully conscious at 9:22 in the morning even though I was too sick to be going to class and had already made arrangements to sleep as late as I could. I laid my head back down and shut my eyes and prayed that Joshâ€™s little mental intrusion hadnâ€™t made sleep impossible. Fortunately, my headache won out over my alertness and I fell back to sleep within a half hour.
Having a telepath for a best friend always made things interesting, but sometimes â€œinterestingâ€ bled into â€œannoyingâ€, when having Josh around wasnâ€™t outright embarrassing or, as it was when I had the flu, intensely painful. Really, a bad headache was the only thing that could make his mental visits painful, and headaches had never been a huge problem for me, so normally it was okay, but Iâ€™d asked him not to try and read my mind while I was sick and he still did anyway, which I suppose is typical for Josh â€“ promises are other peopleâ€™s problems. I suppose I kept him around because he understood me (probably because he had a clearer map of my own mind than I did), but one thing he never really understood was boundaries.
The vast majority of people didnâ€™t know Josh was psychic; his parents wanted it kept a secret, which I guess is understandable. Iâ€™d actually only known in the last couple of years before then, and unlike everyone at our school Iâ€™d known Josh since long before college. Heâ€™d moved to my town in sixth grade and his powers matured that summer, but at that point no one knew but his parents, who were sort of expecting it; apparently telepathy ran in Joshâ€™s family on his fatherâ€™s side, with a grandmother who had it but only had a fraction of Joshâ€™s natural flair at it. He told me about his ability when we were juniors in high school, and I didnâ€™t believe it until he showed me, sometime after which I realized that it explained a lot; he was actually a very normal person who just looked at the world differently because he could listen to your thoughts like a Walkman, read your memories like a comic book, and eat your innermost secrets like a hot dog. On top of that, his being a telepath was a well-kept secret, and sometimes he seemed like he was about to snap at any moment from the effort of keeping it.
Iâ€™d have no idea what to think about Josh if I didnâ€™t know the man could read minds. His reflexes were phenomenal when he was reacting to another person and merely average when he was reacting to his environment. He talked fast, but was always just clear enough to be understood, and if you didnâ€™t quite catch something heâ€™d just said then youâ€™d have it repeated for you even before you could make a noise to that effect. If someone had an idea, heâ€™d listen for about ten seconds before heâ€™d either elaborate on it in a way that grasped the whole idea and included some new bits heâ€™d just come up with â€“ he was annoyingly creative â€“ or shoot it down and refuse to listen even if they hadnâ€™t gotten to the good part. Sometimes he even fucked with people by anticipating an idea theyâ€™d come up with and making up some story about how someone had already come up with it; his favorite figures to attribute these fake ideas to were RenÃ© Descartes, Richard Feynman, 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea, his own Uncle Andy, and Batman (citing a fake reference to an issue of the comic). He hated talking on the phone and he hated talking over the internet, unless you were within the comfortable range of his telepathy (the distance between my dorm room and the lecture hall of his chemistry class was outside that, and Iâ€™m sure it took a lot of effort for him to get into my head from that far). He was infinitely charming when he was interested in a girl and was obviously the perfect boyfriend whenever it came time to play that role, but he usually lost interest quickly, usually right after the first time the girl in question had even a stray thought about another guy when Josh was eavesdropping, which he did often.
Josh was, in short, the worldâ€™s most selfish person, and that only became more apparent as time went on and he relied more and more on his powers. It would get worse before it got better, but fate had some changes in store for Josh and for me.
I guess it would have been about a week or two after I recovered from my flu that my head started to be pressed into service as Joshâ€™s day planner and memo pad. This is, of course, not to say that there was ever a time since I first found out about his secret when he didnâ€™t feel free to have a look inside my brain â€“ at first it was the novelty of having a telepathic best friend that spurred me to give my consent, and once the novelty wore off, I guess I just figured that there was nothing in there he hadnâ€™t seen. This was something different, something that felt a lot more like some basic line was crossed.
We were joking around on our way to a late dinner at a restaurant one Friday night. I donâ€™t remember what we were saying; probably the usual stuff weâ€™d been throwing around since middle school, like the debate on whether Batman could beat Dhalsim from Street Fighter in a fistfight or which historical figures could take a punch (we both agreed on George Washington and Augustus Caesar) and which couldnâ€™t (Thomas Jefferson and Caligula). Josh was also pointing out people on drugs whenever we passed them; he could identify them by how hard it was to read their minds. He said people on really heavy stuff seemed almost not to have any.
Joshâ€™s cell phone rang. â€œHang on a sec,â€ he said, pulling it out of his jacket. â€œItâ€™s my mom.â€
He answered it, and began to communicate with his mother the way he normally did, through the morphemes â€œuh-huhâ€ and â€œyupâ€; this conversation also included the phrase â€œdonâ€™t worryâ€ and ended with a â€œsure, byeâ€. During the conversation, he popped the knuckles on one hand, which he knew I hated but did anyway out of habit.
â€œWhatâ€™d your mom want?â€ I asked.
â€œFor me not to forget to call my grandmother for her 80th birthday tomorrow,â€ he answered, rolling his eyes and smoothing out his short brown hair.
â€œYou know youâ€™re never gonna remember, dude,â€ I pointed out.
â€œYeah,â€ he said, squinting up at me. â€œYouâ€™re probably right. You remember it for me.â€
â€œThatâ€™s stupid,â€ I said, â€œIâ€™ll forget it immediately.â€
No you wonâ€™t, I heard in my mind. The buzzing that I felt in my head whenever Josh was near â€“ pretty much everyone could feel it when they were around him, but I doubt anyone else probably noticed, and no one else knew what it was â€“ got a little stronger as I felt something being pushed into my head. He grinned at me.
â€œWhat did you do?â€ I asked. I couldnâ€™t feel what it was.
â€œTry to forget it now,â€ Josh said, laughing.
There was something there, but trying to figure out what it was reminded me of trying to remember the face of someone Iâ€™d only seen once.
Josh peered at me, puzzled for a moment as he sensed my confusion. â€œWeird, I can read it fine,â€ he said, â€œalthough it doesnâ€™t really feel like one of your thoughts, now that I look. I guess itâ€™s one of mine, and thatâ€™s probably why itâ€™s gibberish to your head. Thatâ€™s pretty cool, actually. Itâ€™s kind of like writing a reminder for myself on your face; it doesnâ€™t bother you at all, but I can see it pretty easily.â€ He laughed.
â€œThanks,â€ I said sarcastically. â€œI appreciate you using my head as a dry-erase board.â€
â€œNah, bigger than that,â€ he answered. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of space there. Like, right between the meaning of the word â€˜prevaricateâ€™ and your memory of senior prom.â€
I had the mental image of an empty warehouse with â€œPREVARICATE: v, to lieâ€ written in huge letters on one wall and an enormous photo of me and my date at prom plastered on the opposite wall. Josh saw it and cracked up.
â€œBut seriously,â€ he said, now obviously thinking about his idea in a serious way. â€œKnow how they say you only use ten percent of your brain? Thatâ€™s an urban myth â€“ the real numberâ€™s a lot more than that, and thatâ€™s why brain damage is so dangerous, but the fact is thereâ€™s a shit-ton of space I can use in there. I mean, how else would you fit new memories, right?â€
I didnâ€™t really argue the point, and if Josh felt my reluctance to accept his rationale, he ignored it. He just did what he usually did â€“ whatever he wanted. I would have to live with his notes in my head and that was that.
I started hanging out with Josh less over the next while, and he got offended. I couldnâ€™t pass it off as anything but what it was, because it was physically impossible for me to lie to him, so he knew that I really was angry because of the way he was treating me. He was getting reckless, too â€“ not showing up to classes, telepathically cheating on tests (even more than usual), driving unsafely whenever there wasnâ€™t a cop around, and getting as many one-night stands as he wanted by lying and telling girls what they wanted to hear. He almost decided to shoplift to see if he could, but that happened to be one of the rare times I was with him and could talk him out of it. He still used me as his notepad when I was near enough, which was pretty often just because of how close he lived to me.
I confronted him about his behavior one day; I remember it was about two weeks before the start of finals because I was coming out of a review session when I felt the buzzing in my head that meant he was close. I saw him, not that far away, walking alone away from me. He stopped when he felt me close and what was on my mind.
You want to talk, he sent. It wasnâ€™t a question; he had no use for questions because he could find the answers himself pretty easily.
Yeah, I thought. He turned and walked toward me, his face passive. The buzzing got stronger as he got closer. Much stronger; he was becoming very powerful, indeed.
â€œWalk with me,â€ he said when he passed me. I did, in silence, for several minutes; I knew he would rather sense my emotions and my thoughts themselves than hear me try to articulate them, but I had no such luxury and would have to wait for his answers to either come out of his mouth or go into my head.
â€œYou think Iâ€™m an asshole,â€ he told me after a few minutes of buzz-filled silence, punctuated by the sickening bone-on-bone crack of Josh popping his knuckles.
I didnâ€™t say anything. He knew the answer well enough.
â€œDonâ€™t judge me,â€ he said, quickly getting irritated, swinging his short legs in the way he did when he was angry. â€œI am what I am. If I was faster than everyone else, would running be cheating? Iâ€™m using my fucking God-given abilities, same as anyone else. Just because mine are better than yours doesnâ€™t mean you get any right to be my moral fucking compass.â€
I started to say something to prevent him from making a scene, but we were at one of the main roads of campus and Joshâ€™s sense of the dramatic kicked in â€“ fortunately, there werenâ€™t very many pedestrians around. I knew that particular stretch was clear of cars at that moment because I couldnâ€™t hear any engines, but Josh leapt into the center of the road anyway and turned to challenge me, squeezing his eyes shut. â€œI canâ€™t be touched!â€ he called out. â€œA car could come down here going eighty and I could avoid it without opening my eyes. Thatâ€™s power. You think Iâ€™m reckless? Seems to me like itâ€™s practically my birthright. I donâ€™t have to listen to rules, and I know I donâ€™t have to listen to you.â€
I left, then, in a convoluted mixture of exasperation, disgust, sadness, and worry, knowing that Josh could feel every bit of it and pretty sure he wouldnâ€™t care anyway.
The car, when it did hit Josh about a week and a half later, was only going forty miles an hour, which turned out to be fast enough, and Josh had his eyes wide open. The driver, a Caucasian male in his thirties, had evidently been experimenting with cocktails of drugs but thought he was okay to drive; to Josh, it probably felt like the manâ€™s mind was splattered across campus, so it didnâ€™t entirely surprise me that Josh didnâ€™t sense him coming. That Josh didnâ€™t hear him also made sense â€“ he was the only person I knew who felt safe walking around with noise-canceling headphones on, and he was wrong in this particular case. One of his ribs was broken and two ribs were cracked by the initial hit, which also left a ton of bruises up and down his left arm and fractured his left wrist. He bounced a little, and that was how his head hit the windshield and how he wound up with a pretty nasty concussion. Still, it wasnâ€™t as bad as it could have been, and when I came to visit him a week later after my second final he was awake and alert, with apparently no damage that would be permanent, according to the doctors.
â€œName, please?â€ the nurse at the hospital asked me.
â€œAlex Lin, here to see Josh Card in Room 1644,â€ I answered, leaning my lanky 6â€™2â€ frame against her desk and running a hand through my unkempt black hair as she checked the system to make sure he was a real person and not allergic to Asians and whatever else crap they had on there about him. I thought about what Iâ€™d say to Josh, and tried to get my thoughts in order so if there was a confrontation between us he wouldnâ€™t be bolstered by playing off my confusion.
The nurse let me go up to Joshâ€™s room, where he was sitting up in a ridiculous-looking neck brace and re-reading Song of Susannah by Stephen King, turning the pages with his right hand. He put the paperback aside when I got there.
â€œIâ€™ve been the worst kind of asshole,â€ he said.
I didnâ€™t say anything, because I knew he could hear what I was thinking, and that there really wasnâ€™t anything I could do to keep the thoughts from coming. They werenâ€™t nice.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Alex,â€ he said. There was a pained look on his face. Something was different about him besides his injuries, but I couldnâ€™t put my finger on it.
I shrugged, the shape of my thoughts making it very clear that I was willing to forgive him if things changed. He didnâ€™t react.
â€œSay something, man, seriously,â€ he said. That confused me.
â€œWhy do you need me to say something?â€ I asked. Thatâ€™s when I realized what was different â€“ the buzzing was gone. I was near Josh, and yet completely alone in my head; even when he wasnâ€™t actively reading my mind, I normally felt the buzzing around him. It was just a fact of life.
â€œTheyâ€™re gone,â€ he said, looking pale and morose. â€œIâ€™m like you.â€
I almost choked. â€œYour powers are gone?â€
He tried to nod but failed, and so settled for an affirmative grunt. â€œThe doctors were so happy that there wasnâ€™t any brain damage,â€ he said. â€œI can see, talk, dance, whatever the hell you want. There wasnâ€™t even that much swelling. Iâ€™m a modern medical fucking miracle, surviving a hit like that. Too bad I lost something a little more special.â€ He did manage a half-shrug, careful not to move his left side much. â€œNot like I deserved what I had anyway.â€
â€œAre you gonna be okay?â€ I asked. It was strange, talking to Josh and expecting him to respond to my words and not my thoughts and feelings.
â€œI might be, I might not,â€ he said. â€œI already applied to retake all my classes next semester â€“ I wouldnâ€™t be able to pass on my own steam if I took my finals right now anyway, Iâ€™m sure I donâ€™t have to tell you that. The university is pretty cautious about my family suing, so theyâ€™re willing to do a lot.â€
I nodded, perched awkwardly on the cheap armchair in his hospital room, hating the sterile odor of rubbing alcohol. We talked for a little while after that â€“ it was mostly him apologizing and me just taking it. I was far better prepared for an argument than what I got, but I wasnâ€™t about to complain.
I graduated on time, he didnâ€™t, and we lost touch. I had an okay job â€“ not great, but it paid the bills â€“ for three years before I heard from Josh again one day in late January. He still lived at home with his parents, and since at the time I was caring for my father while he recovered from hip replacement surgery I was more than close enough to meet Josh for lunch. Eating meals with someone was always Joshâ€™s favorite activity, back when he had his powers; he always said there was nothing quite like tasting everyoneâ€™s meal at once. He liked to eat with me especially â€“ Iâ€™m whatâ€™s called a supertaster, which is an honest-to-God scientific term for someone whose sense of taste is especially strong (itâ€™s more common among Asians than among white people like Josh) and Josh loved to experience that.
We got burgers at a place that weâ€™d gone to about twice a week when we were kids. I didnâ€™t recognize anybody in the place, which didnâ€™t really surprise me, even though I knew the entire staff by name back in high school. Times change, as they say.
â€œTheyâ€™re starting to come back, you know,â€ Josh said, laying down his burger on his plate after about twenty minutes of catching up on each otherâ€™s lives.
â€œWhat?â€ I asked.
â€œMy powers,â€ he said, sitting back in his chair with a half-smile on his face, popping all the knuckles on his right hand. â€œTheyâ€™re spotty usually, but sometimes they come through really clear. I guess itâ€™s the same thing as if Iâ€™d lost my motor skills in the accident and had to do rehab to relearn them. Iâ€™m teaching other parts of my brain to do telepathy, slowly but surely. Can you feel it?â€
I could, and told him. It wasnâ€™t anything like it used to be (I was kind of afraid of how powerful heâ€™d be right now if he hadnâ€™t gotten hit), but I could feel the buzzing. It was more like radio static than the constant buzz it used to be, but it was there. He seemed excited to be getting that part of himself back, and I was glad for him. It felt good to be glad for him; I guess thatâ€™s when I really forgave him for what happened in college.
We were there for a while, and it was pretty dark when we left. That area of town had been getting pretty bad since we were in high school, and we probably ought to have been more on our guard than we were, but you never really expect a man to come out of an alleyway with a gun until it actually happens.
â€œLetâ€™s see those wallets,â€ the guy said. He was white, his hair and most of his face out of view in the darkness under a gray hoodie that I bet he thought he looked like Eminem in. I took my wallet out and handed it to him â€“ I didnâ€™t have anything in there worth more than my life.
Josh apparently thought differently, if the way the buzz heightened was any indication. The mugger reeled. I donâ€™t know what Josh was doing to the man, and for that Iâ€™m kind of glad â€“ his face, now visible, kept going from awe to pain to terror.
Josh took a step closer to go for the gun while the man was distracted, but the momentary lapse of concentration on the mental assault that that move required took a toll and I felt the buzz cut out. The manâ€™s trigger finger flexed in a panicked reflex once he had control over it again and the determined set of Joshâ€™s jaw changed to a surprised â€œOâ€ shape as the gun went off, a hole in his jacket attesting to the fact that my friend had been shot in the chest. The entire thing there was happened in about two seconds, and I was too stunned to do anything about it.
Josh and I both slumped to the ground as the man ran off â€“ Josh because he was dying, and me because I was in complete shock. Joshâ€™s eyes, wide and fearful, locked on mine. I could hear the buzzing of his telepathy again, as strong as Iâ€™d ever heard it and growing stronger and stronger. It grew in intensity until it was unbearable; at the same time, I blacked out at the intrusion of the largest push into my mind Iâ€™d ever felt.
There was an investigation and an autopsy, and between what they discovered about the bullet, the prints on my wallet which the mugger had dropped, and my own testimony, the man who slaughtered my friend was found guilty after a jury deliberation of about two and a half minutes. I didnâ€™t stay for the sentence, but the deadbeat had an extensive police record already and the judge didnâ€™t seem to look on him favorably. Heâ€™d be rotting in jail a good long time, and while Iâ€™m not generally of a religious bent Iâ€™m inclined to believe in hell in the special case of that man.
Joshâ€™s body was buried in a cemetery in our hometown. Pretty much everyone there was crying except for me; no one questioned it, I guess because everyone thought I was still beyond emotion. I was given special condolences for the dual horrors of being present at Joshâ€™s death and having to recount it in court, but I didnâ€™t need condolences. Josh was about as religious as I was, but there was still a priest there â€“ his parents, at least, were nominally Catholic â€“ that I guess did a pretty good job of telling everyone how bad it was to lose a guy as young as Josh, even though if heâ€™d said twenty words to Josh since Josh was ten that would beat my expectations by an order of magnitude. I made sure to give my own condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Card, of course; theyâ€™d lost a son far more than Iâ€™d lost a friend.
I stood around a little while after the funeral, wondering what Iâ€™d do with the rest of my day. Go home and change, maybe, I thought. Take a nap. Something like that.
Nah, said another voice in my head. Letâ€™s get some lunch.
My hands rose up idly, my right hand trying to coax the knuckles on my left hand into popping to no avail. I couldnâ€™t suppress a chuckle.
Can it, the voice in my head grumbled, sulking. Letâ€™s go get some Chinese food.
You hate Chinese food, I pointed out.
Yeah, yeah, answered the voice of my passenger, but itâ€™s your mouth, and you donâ€™t.
I shrugged and walked toward the nearest Chinese restaurant, hearing the buzz that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The rest of our shared life, I guess; itâ€™s not just mine anymore. No one could say I was using only ten percent of my brain with two minds in there.