Kill him (kill him) KILL HIM
- the Torth Majority
"Wild cherry pop tarts," Thomas said.
He watched Cherise, hopeful, but she ignored the rows of pop-tarts and selected a loaf of whole wheat bread. "I'm pretty sure this is what we're supposed to get." She added the bread to their crowded shopping cart.
"Okay," Thomas said. "Get both."
Cherise studied him. They were at eye level, since Thomas faced her in the kiddy seat of the shopping cart. Cherise wore her usual expression, a careful study in mask-like neutrality, but Thomas didn't need facial expressions to read someone's mind.
Is he trying to get me in trouble? Cherise wondered.
"Of course not," Thomas said, answering her thought. "If anyone gets in trouble, it will be me. You're the most trustworthy person in the Hollander Home."
Their foster mother would undoubtedly conclude that Thomas had manipulated poor Cherise into buying junk food. That was how things usually went at home. If anything questionable happened, Thomas got blamed.
Other shoppers browsed the supermarket aisle, their thoughts blooming in Thomas's mind as they walked past. Random thoughts were the background of his life. Emotions came to him first. Surface thoughts were a close second. Even animals emitted low-grade emotions and impulses, and whatever they thought, Thomas received. Anyone who entered his four yard range unknowingly shared private or intimate moments. Thomas had been reading minds ever since he could remember.
Cherise began to push the shopping cart away. "I said I'd stay on budget."
"Mrs. Hollander would blame me," Thomas said, frustrated. "I promise. And if she actually takes away your van privileges, just for this? I'll buy you a car."
Cherise stopped in the middle of the aisle, stunned. She knew well enough that Thomas couldn't afford a car. They were foster kids, which, as far as she was concerned, meant they were poor. They didn't get an allowance. But on the other hand, Cherise was sixteen and had just earned her driver's license—and Thomas had bought other gifts for her, such as graphic novels and a beanbag chair.
"It would be a junker," Thomas admitted. "But I just signed with a pharmaceutical company. They're paying me royalties. In two months, I should have enough money saved up to buy you a low-end vehicle."
"You want pop-tarts badly enough to buy me a car?" Cherise asked, incredulous.
I want enough freedom to choose my own breakfast, Thomas thought. He had directed a team of scientists at Harvard, yet most people assumed that he was twelve years old. He simply wasn't. True, his body was age twelve, but Thomas had absorbed hundreds of lifetimes. He'd spent enough time around doctors and scientists to equal the smartest among them.
He merely nodded. Let Cherise think him capricious. That was better than soaking up pity from her.
"Okay then." Cherise swept his choice of pop-tarts into the shopping cart. "What's next on the list?"
Everyone who knew Thomas trusted him with budgets and lists. He'd memorized all fifty-four items of their grocery list, and he could have recited ten trillion items in correct order after a single glance. Everything he experienced stuck in his unique memory, as if his brain was a camera constantly set on RECORD. He could peruse any second of his conscious life, frame by frame, down to the smallest detail. His infancy was just a jumble of input, but by the age of two, he'd learned to sort salient information from the flood of mundane trivia.
"We're done," Thomas said. "But let's get more baby aspirin." He tapped his coat pocket, where he kept a bottle.
Cherise looked for the pharmaceutical aisle.
"That way." Thomas pointed. He'd never been inside the Shop-n-Save—he rarely got invited to go anywhere mundane—but he already knew the layout of each aisle. That came from the shoppers who passed within his range of telepathy.
The two of them attracted stares. Cherise was darkly tan, possibly Mayan or some other type of native American. She didn't know her own ancestry, so Thomas could only guess. Her coloring was rare in the middle of New Hampshire.
At twelve years old, Thomas should have been too big to fit in the kiddy seat. People tended to sneak glances at him, then look away. Thomas picked up his own image, filtered and distorted through individual perceptions. Any crowded place felt like visiting the mirrors of funhouse. Some passersby saw him as freakish, while others saw him as cute, or pathetic, or sallow, or weird. It added up to what Thomas could see in a real mirror. Sand-blond hair, hunched spine, and underdeveloped body.
"Make it a van," Cherise said. "A junker van, instead of a junker car."
Thomas followed the thread of her thoughts below the surface of her mind, searching for her reason. Cherise wanted a vehicle that could accommodate Thomas's motorized wheelchair. They could take day trips together.
He looked away, not sure how to express his gratitude. No one else would ever contemplate taking him on day trips. Well, maybe Margot, their foster sister. But no one else. The rest of his foster family wanted an excuse to get rid of him. Unless he was careful, he'd get transferred to another home.
Cherise plucked a bottle of baby aspirin off the aisle shelf. "You're going through a lot of these."
Thomas reached past her and grabbed two more bottles. "You would too, if you had to hear everyone's thoughts while fielding questions out loud."
In the past month, he'd given lectures at universities. He'd even been wheeled onto The Late Show as a guest star. Ever since he'd invented a medical treatment for spinal muscular atrophy—and his own unique variant of that disease—millions of people wanted to meet the young Genius of the Twenty-First Century.
Cherise emanated fondness, and concern. Always concern. Thomas wished she would stop worrying about him. As much as he enjoyed Cherise for her imagination and optimism, he could do without the worry. It was like a bad side dish ruining an otherwise excellent meal.
"I can handle two or three people," Thomas explained. "But when dozens are within my range, they blend into a roar until I can't differentiate who's speaking out loud and who isn't. That's when these come in handy." He rattled a pill bottle.
Cherise pushed the cart towards the checkout aisles. "I don't think it's good to take so many."
Thomas heard the rest of her thoughts, of course. Cherise wondered when he would make his power public. Not just a tabloid rumor, but scientifically proven. If the world believed what he could do, Cherise thought, I'm sure they wouldn't pressure him like that. She imagined scientists treating Thomas with respect.
Thomas doubted it would play out like that. He'd struggled for years to win the respect of his adult colleagues. If they ever found out the truth, they would accuse him of cheating his way through life. They would strip him of his hard-won accolades and reduce him to a lab rat. Of that, he was certain. Never mind that he'd stitched together brilliant ideas to invent a medicine. All they would care about was the fact that he'd absorbed ideas from other people.
The shopping chart stopped abruptly as Cherise froze. Anxiety poured off her like spiky exclamation points.
A scrawny woman stood near a magazine rack, sloppily applying lipstick. She glanced at a tabloid newspaper, then at Thomas, then back to the tabloid.
The front page featured a big, obvious photograph of Thomas. GENIUS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, the headline shouted. In smaller print, it asked, IS HE A HOAX?
Cherise prepared to lift Thomas. Her intentions came through loud and clear. Hide. Escape. She hated to abandon the groceries, but she wasn't going to watch another false mom throw herself at Thomas.
"No." Thomas blocked Cherise with his stick-thin arms. "She might be for real. Let's get closer." He wanted to get within range to read the woman's mind. Then he would know whether to believe her or not.
Cherise gave him a pained look. Thomas, she thought, full of pity. She's got to be another scam artist.
Thomas bit his lip, gazing at the woman. She was skinny, like him. She shared his pasty coloring. A lot of people in New England shared that look … yet this might be his birth mother. Had she finally come to claim him?
He knew it was unlikely. This was almost certainly a destitute woman, trying to cash in on the child prodigy. But the only way to know for certain was to read her mind.
"Thomas?" the woman asked in a high, squeaky voice. "I can't believe we're meeting like this." She trotted towards him on her high heels. Tears began to run down her face, smearing her mascara.
Thomas leaned forward, eager to read her mind. This really might be his mother. During the last month, his fame had grown, leaping to international news. Thousands of people knew the name of the rural road where Thomas Hill had been rescued as an infant. His birth mother should be able to put that fact together with his age, and recognize him as her son. She had to. And this might be her.
"I've missed you so much." She opened her trembling arms for a hug.
The instant she came within his range, Thomas jerked back. Her tears were a thin layer on top of a greed cake. She wanted to clutch Thomas and wail that he belonged to HER. She meant to eat his fame and pump movie deals out of it. No more flop houses for her. No more jail time. No one would dare arrest the mother of the next Einstein, or the next da Vinci, or whatever this handicapped little bastard was supposed to be. Who would question her tearful claim? She knew how to get what she wanted.
"You're a crack whore," Thomas said in a cold tone.
The false mom lost her confidence for a moment. Then she forced a tearful smile. "You have a right to be angry, Thomas, honey. But I love you. I was—"
"You're not my mother," Thomas said. "Go use your food stamps and never speak to me again."
Cherise yanked the shopping cart away and aimed for the shortest checkout line. The false mom followed them like a predator chasing prey, her high heels whamming against the floor. "I know I must be a disappointment," she called. "But I never meant to abandon you. I—"
"Twelve years ago," Thomas cut in, "you were doing time for prostitution. I can't be your child, thank goodness."
Her face distorted into a horrific snarl, painted with too much make-up. "Liar!" she shrieked, defending her own honor. She probably deceived herself on a regular basis. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Who the fuck are you?" Thomas yelled back. He was sick of self-righteous adults who wanted to use him. Adults always tried to turn him into their personal tool. They made him do their taxes, or investments, or they went to great lengths to shut him up so he wouldn't reveal their dirty secrets. Thomas gripped the shopping cart to keep from shaking in rage. He wanted to throw things at her.
Calm down! Cherise urged in her mind, mortified by all the stares they were attracting. She frantically tossed their items in front of the cashier boy.
"I'm your mother!" the false mom shouted.
"You're a lying crack addict!" Thomas said, unwilling to let her win, even for a moment. "If you follow me any further, I'll call the police!"
The false mom seized vials of energy drinks from a checkout stand and hurled them at Thomas. One hit Cherise, and she hunched her shoulders to shield herself from more missiles. Thomas batted one drink aside. Blue liquid exploded across the floor.
The cashier boy looked wildly around and shouted for help.
Thomas pulled his cell phone out of his coat and dialed. "I'll tell them about the heroin you've stashed in your nightstand, bitch."
The false mom staggered in shock. "Demon!" she screamed, and launched herself at Thomas.
Her fingernails dug into his neck, and her bestial rage enveloped him. Thomas choked. Most people would control their rage in a public place, but this woman was a few steps removed from the type of adults Thomas was used to dealing with. Now he wished he'd had time to analyze her personality. His misjudgment might get him killed.
She shook him, trying to snap his neck, stop his mouth, destroy his words.
Desperate, Thomas inhaled her rage and made it his own. He struggled to escape her grasp. Blackness crept in at the edges of his vision.
Strong hands pried her away.
A burly man, one of the local lumber workers, had squeezed into the checkout lane. He pinned the false mom against the nearby rack. Candy bars and gum packs rained down.
"That devil's my son!" the false mom shrieked, fighting to get back at Thomas. "He's mine!"
A supermarket employee came from another direction and helped to hustle the woman away.
As soon as Thomas caught his breath, he reported the assault to the operator at 9-1-1. The cashier boy bagged their groceries, apologizing profusely to Cherise the whole time. He seemed afraid to even look at Thomas.
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