This story is by Grace Walker and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In another life, I might be running around New York City, saving children from burning buildings and intercepting crime bosses. I might even have a super-suit.
But for now, I live in a suburb in western Massachusetts.
Let’s back up for a second.
My name is Terry Boutwell, I’m a high school junior. I play soccer, and I invest a lot of my emotional stability in the fates of book characters.
Oh yeah, and I can read minds.
Only my parents know about my powers. We talked it over, and we agreed it would probably make my friends uncomfortable. They might think I was invading their privacy. I’m pretty self-conscious about maintaining relationships as it is, so that was more than enough reason to keep quiet.
My skill will never be useful like Spider-Man or the Hulk because nothing ever happens in suburbia. The only criminals are the rich druggies in the bathroom. At least, that’s what I thought before now.
I was in the hallway when it happened. The bell had just rung and crowds of people were moving in both directions. I was on my way to physics class when I walked headlong into someone. I looked up and saw a boy. He was short, only a bit taller than me, with long-ish ginger hair that hung over the equally vivid freckles on his face. We both mumbled various apologies and kept walking. But as I went, I heard a voice.
“By Thursday afternoon, they’ll all be dead.”
I stopped, hairs rising on the back of my neck, then I spun around. I caught a flash of orange and then the boy was gone, lost in a sea of heads. I stood for a minute more, indecisive. I was jerked back into reality by the sound of the bell ringing.
I was quiet that night at dinner. So much so that my mother noticed. My dad was out of town on a business trip, so it was just the two of us. We were in the dining room, a shepherd’s pie sitting between us.
“You’re so quiet,” my mother said. “Bad day?”
I shook my head. “I heard something really weird at school.”
I told her what happened.
My mom frowned. I didn’t often talk about my powers because people rarely had anything interesting to think. It wasn’t every day that somebody thought about imminent death.
“And you have no idea who this kid is, or what he’s doing?”
“No,” I said, twisting a napkin in my lap. “I don’t even know if he’s serious, but I feel like it was too strong a thought not to be serious.”
My mom rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Let’s think about this logically for a minute. On Thursday —that’s the day after tomorrow— you have a half-day and then an assembly, right?”
“Ok. Clearly this boy wants to kill a lot of people at once. How many ways are there for a kid to kill large numbers of people?”
“Well,” I said, “I have no idea where he would get a gun, and his parents would probably notice, right?”
My mom sighed. “You never know, parents can be surprisingly unobservant.”
We sat in silence. Finally, she spoke again.
“And you’re sure you don’t want to go to the police?”
I groaned in consternation. “How can I? I don’t know the name of the boy, I don’t know what he’s doing, and I can’t say how I know anything in the first place! I asked my friends, it seems like nobody knows who he is.”
My mom nodded, then stood abruptly. She gathered our plates and went into the kitchen. I trailed after her.
“We have another day to work things out,” she said. “Find the boy tomorrow, gather as much information as you can. Then we can make a decision.”
We cleared the table. Without even discussing it, we went into the living room and turned on the TV. I couldn’t focus on homework, and neither of us wanted to acknowledge the creeping sense of dread that was building in the air.
The next day, the red-headed boy wasn’t at school. I scanned the crowds between every class. I opened up my senses far more than I’m used to, and let thoughts wash over me.
The long and the short of it is, I had a pretty bad day. All the exposure to other people’s brainwaves left me exhausted and grumpy. And to top it all off, when my mom found we knew no more than before, she said,
“You’re skipping the assembly tomorrow.”
“What? Why would you even say that?”
She was standing in the doorway of my room. I was on my bed, staring at her. She shook her head.
“No, let me finish. You’ll go to school for the half-day tomorrow. The boy is obviously going to be there if he’s doing something at the assembly. Find him. Find out what he’s doing. I will wait outside in the car to see if he leaves. Text me, and I will dial 911. If the assembly is about to start and there’s nothing to be done, then leave.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but my mother held up her hand.
“I know, I sound like a terrible person,” she said grimly, “but we have to be serious. At some point we need to ask ourselves if we’d rather have survivors guilt, or be dead.”
I nodded dumbly.
The next day dawned bright and cold. The windows were etched with frost and the grass crunched under my feet. Something about days like that just make you want to curl up in bed with a hot drink and Vince Guaraldi playing in the background.
But today was different. I was on edge, my nerves felt brittle. Instead of taking the bus, my mom drove me to school. We sat in silence, the engine humming.
We got to school. I looked over at my mom in the seat next to me. She was pale, and looked about as nervous as I felt.
“See you soon.” I said, and got out of the car.
The day passed. I went to class. The boy was nowhere. Finally, I was in the cafeteria when the bell rang. Everyone rose, and started making their way over to the gym.
And then, like a miracle, there he was. He was standing in the hallway, watching the students go by. His hair was matted, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. I tensed, and started making my way toward him, but the crowd was moving swiftly and it was all I could do to keep him in my sights. As we neared the gym, we had to slow down and enter in single file. I took the opportunity to focus my senses.
His head was a mess. His thoughts were scrambled, all talking over each other.
“Almost time now.”
“This is your fault.”
“Nobody will know it was us.”
“We set the timer, all we have to do is wait.”
I staggered. Timer meant bomb. He built a bomb. Quietly, I dropped out of line and started walking back down the empty halls. Nobody noticed. I was sweating, my hands were shaking.
I could see the exit at the end of the corridor when I stopped. What was I thinking? I was knowingly walking away from a bomb and hundreds of oblivious people. My friends were in there. I turned, then turned again. There was no way I could get everybody to listen to me and leave the gym in under fifteen minutes. I scanned the halls frantically, looking for something —anything— that could save me from making a decision.
And that was when I realized I had been an idiot the whole time. I could save everyone. Convincing them wouldn’t be necessary because they would never know what was going on. Heck, I could get them all out, and nobody would even know it was me.
I turned a third time, and walked straight across the hall to the fire alarm.
The minute the alarm sounded, I bolted. I ran out of the building, got in the car, and promptly burst into tears.
Four minutes later, people came pouring out of the school.
Six minutes later, the fire department arrived.
Nine minutes later, the gym exploded. –
There was a lot of confusion following the explosion. Nobody seemed to know what had happened. Thankfully, there were no casualties. The only remaining question was the identity of the person who pulled the alarm.
At least, that’s what it said on the local news.
The red-headed boy killed himself that night. His note provided enough evidence for the police to close the case. I’m not sure how I feel about that. When I think of him, I remember that nobody knew his name.