Alex didn’t like to consider himself psychic, or gifted, or whatever the experts called it. He preferred to think of it as browsing, the way you idly clicked through posts and articles on Facebook. Everyone was an open book, or in this case, an open mind, though some minds seemed more inviting than others. It came in handy as a college student, since he rarely had to study and was never at a loss for words. At first he tried not to use his abilities (a fear he tried to pin on “ethics”), but later realized that if he found a five-dollar bill blowing across campus, wouldn’t he chase it down? Why sit back and watch all those thoughts and dreams blow into the gutter?
Take today, for example: they were having a discussion over The Seagull and it became clear within the first five minutes that no one had read. That’s when the professor’s voice changed. He knew that shift, from agreeable empathy to cruel desperation. He wasn’t beyond making an example of the class. Since participation was ten percent of their grade, Alex swept through the minds of his classmates—but gently, as if he was merely picking through the top layer of their garbage cans.
You didn’t want to dive too deep or you might upset them, like he did during a Calc exam his freshman year. He had pressed too hard and lifted too many answers from the guy beside him; the dude began massaging his head before passing out a minute later. He didn’t come back to class for a week, and Alex felt awful, terrified that he knew (or guessed) the reason. As it happened, he didn’t seem to regard Alex one way or another, but it was a stark reminder that his abilities didn’t come with an instruction manual. He had to have rules.
As he feared, almost no one in class had done the reading. But wait—somewhere in the back… this girl had read, had ideas, but was too timid to say them out loud. He could just glimpse a previous class where she had said something about one of Shakespeare’s plays and the professor had rudely dismissed her answer: yes, that’s very interesting, but not really relevant to our discussion, is it? She never spoke again.
Alex raised his hand and the professor gave a half-hearted gesture towards him. Go ahead, make my day, he seemed to grunt.
“Well, Nina’s lost her illusions about art, about theater… and she realizes that all she has left is the work, the day-to-day struggle of performance,” Alex said, trying to paraphrase her thoughts. “And that’s just as meaningful as her dreams once were, even if she has to work hard to make them real. That’s why she calls it a ‘vocation’ and not an art. She’s bitter, but liberated. She knows the value of work.”
The professor paused, his eyes widening slightly, then sweeping over the class to see if they were paying attention.
“Yes… that’s pretty good. Okay, that’s more what I’m looking for here. Do you guys understand that? Would anyone care to elaborate?”
Predictably, no one did. Alex could relax now, since the professor would never call on him twice, and the class could move along on its own steam. Mostly he wanted to relish the subtle perfume of the girl’s thoughts, which reminded him of bath bombs with an exotic fragrance: lavender champagne or spearmint eucalyptus. When he first learned he could do this, it made him nervous, like he was digging through someone’s underwear drawer. That’s when he made a rule: only the top layer, and only three to five seconds. Anything more was a violation.
But it’s amazing what you could find in three seconds. Warm sensations of desire, a lazy, hazy daydream that could last all day. For others it was sadness, or a kind of bone-heavy ennui that lingered like a virus. It could really ruin his day if he wasn’t careful. So that’s why he just took a peek and fled, usually just to hunt for an answer or to keep himself awake in class. What people held right at the tip of their tongues was an education in itself.
On his way out of the class the professor made eye contact (never a good sign) and asked him if he had a second. Alex made a half-hearted shrug.
“I really appreciated your effort here today,” he said, with an uncharacteristic smile. “It’s like torture getting these kids to read. But I think when you do confront the material, you discover a really authentic experience that no amount of digital technology can provide. I can tell that’s what you were thinking with your comment about Nina.”
“Ah, yes, exactly,” Alex nodded, inching out of the classroom.
“Hey, do you know about Write On!, the Department’s Literary Club? It starts in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you tag along? I think it’s this environment… you need more like-minded people to talk to. It’s hard to be the only one talking, the only one who cares.”
“Oh, really, that’s super cool of you, but I was going to grab some lunch—”
“Alex… I’ve seen you after class, you just sit alone on the benches,” he said, giving him a playful nudge. “Contemplation is nice, but it’s not a full meal. Just give it a shot. What do you say?”
Alex gave a quick, poking stab at Dr. Schmidt’s mind, just to see if he was screwing with him. But no, he was dead earnest about the whole thing. It was almost sad. So Alex said, “Why not,” figuring it would just be an hour or so of stilted conversation while people sipped tea and crammed their mouths full of cookies (can’t talk if you’re eating, right?).
He followed Dr. Schmidt across the quad to the saddest building on campus: Chapman Hall, unofficially known as the “haunted house.” Only three classes that he knew of met in here, since the university seemed content to let it die of neglect (two of the letters on building were missing). The rooms were like a time capsule, with pull-down maps, chalkboards, and the middle-school desks that had been pulled out of most classrooms decades ago. Only three students were scattered around the desks, each one with a Solo cup and a napkin of Italian-style cookies. Dr. Schmidt apologized for being late and made hasty introductions, though no one seemed that interested in making anyone’s acquaintance.
Alex took a few cookies and sat down beside a sorority girl in yoga pants and an oversized university sweatshirt. Not that he wanted to hit on her (God no!), he just assumed a girl like that would never talk to him, so he would be spared making small talk about Joyce or Virginia Woolf. As he predicted, she just sipped her tea and stared vacantly about the room, occasionally nodding at Dr. Schmidt’s endless anecdotes about the professors he met at grad school.
He suddenly felt a whisper at the back of his skull, like a hand prying open his living-room window. And then the voice, amplified, drowning out everything else:
So you think you’re the only one, huh? Welcome to my world!
Alex had to spit out his cookie, large chunks falling all over the desk. He blushed and apologized, immediately taking stock of his surroundings. The three students stared at him, but none of them in a “hey, it’s me” kind of way. They each looked bored and impatient. Yet the voice immediately reared back at him:
I’ve been watching you for a few weeks now, waiting for you to fall into my web. And here you are. I thought he’d never take the hint: I kept asking him to invite you here, to take notice of you in class. Good thing you read The Seagull!
His eyes ran from one person to the next, finding nothing but vacancy. There was one guy wearing a jean jacket with iron-on patches of death metal bands; he vaguely knew him, since they had had a linguistics class together. The second student was a nerdy-looking girl with blue hair resting her hands on a double-decker manga. And the third, of course, was the sorority girl, who he had never seen before, though she looked like so many girls he couldn’t be sure.
So which one am I? Hell, maybe I’m Dr. Schmidt? You can’t tell by looking… you’ll have to reach out and flex your muscles. But I can tell you don’t work out very much… not the way you should, not like I could teach you.
He crossed out the sorority girl immediately, and after a second or two, decided that metal-dude was too vacant or stoned. Okay, so it was manga-girl. He gave her a little smile and raised his eyebrows, which seemed to astonish her. When he tried it again, she gave him a discreet finger and scooted back a few inches. She never made eye contact again.
How original, you chose the ‘weird’ girl. Cute. And stupid. I guess you’re not ready for a real conversation.
He had to force himself not to jump out of his desk and scream at them, demand that they reveal themselves and stop screwing around. But even when he swept through their minds, nothing revealed itself. Either they were consciously shutting him out, or it wasn’t anyone in the room. Maybe someone was hiding just outside, or even down the hall; he had been able to spy into a mind across the quad once, a person no larger than a speck in the distance. And if this person was as good as they seemed, they could be—hell, all the way across campus, watching through binoculars or a telephoto lens.
Mercifully, the literary club soon ended after an abortive attempt to share their favorite books. They never got past the manga girl, who almost had a fit choosing between Full Metal Alchemist and something called Ballroom e Youkoso. Dr. Schmidt said he couldn’t meet next week, but wanted to schedule a meeting for the week following, and had everyone exchange e-mails. Alex gave them a fake address and scampered down the faded art-deco staircase to the first floor.
“Riveting, huh?” the sorority girl asked him, just a few steps behind.
“Uh… yeah, I guess. But I probably won’t be coming back.”
“Why not? Aren’t you an English major?”
“Yes, but I don’t think it’s mandatory. It’s a special interest club, if you can even call it that,” he said, slowing down.
“Probably looks good on your transcript. Or gets you brownie points with Schmidt. He gets real bitchy when he doesn’t like you.”
Alex gave her the once-over, wondering why she was being so friendly. From her salon-perfect nails to her Teva Mocs, she was just what he expected from someone pledging Chi-O. Except that she was talking to him… and not walking away.
“So you’re what, a senior?” he asked.
“Junior, but in no hurry to graduate. I dig college. It’s my jam,” she said, with a goofy grin. “I don’t think we’ve had any classes together.”
“No, I—ah, transferred by sophomore year. Junior college. I’ve only taken a few classes here. Schmidt’s, linguistics, and that one survey course last semester.”
“Oh, so you had Manguel? What a nut job,” she said, propping open the door. “I hear she had a nervous breakdown when someone called Emily Dickinson a poetess in class. Like frothing at the mouth.”
“Thanks,” he said, walking through. “Look, I’m probably going to sound weird here, but are you… ah, the one I was talking to before?”
She gave an amused smile but didn’t betray knowledge or guilt either way. The wind picked up and carried her hair across her face, which covered her eyes and nose, leaving only her teeth, still smiling. It reminded him of a gorgon, her hair like writhing snakes, eyes ready to turn him to stone. She finally brushed it out of her face and kept pace with him across the quad.
“I don’t know, what were we talking about? I talk to a lot of people.”
“Oh, just silly stuff… mind-reading, psychic powers,” he said, offhandedly.
“Really? Can you read minds? Is that one of your party tricks?”
“A little. Maybe,” he said, with a laugh. “Can I try it on you?”
“Ah, okay. Sure. Tell me what I’m thinking,” she said, her eyes growing large, staring him down.
He looked into her eyes and let himself in. Her first thoughts were that she was genuinely amused by this conversation, that she wanted him to succeed, that she was making it easy. He’s cute in an awkward, angry white-boy kind of way. That was a second, even less, so he poked around a bit more, finding the minutiae of her job, her sorority engagements, planning a birthday party for a friend. Exactly what and where he expected. He was about to disengage when he felt something, almost hidden, but more like hiding in plain sight. It looked like a box, about the size of his hand, with a lock; but it was unlocked. He had just enough time to open it and peek inside.
Son of a—! Inside was a miniature portrait of him: a fuzzy, imperfect picture without his glasses (though he always wore his glasses). Of course—his driver’s license! He turned the box upside down and a dozen plastic cards fell out: his license, credit cards, insurance cards, random memberships. The complete contents of his wallet. Instinctively, he reached for his wallet and flipped it open; everything was still there, unmolested. It was just—what, a fluke? Did he get his wires crossed?
“So, what am I thinking, Houdini?” she said, crossing her arms.
“My wallet! What’s it doing in your head?”
She stretched her face in a “you got me” grin but didn’t seem all that surprised.
“That’s pretty good, most people wouldn’t find it on their first try,” she said. “I had to see if your references checked out.”
“So it was you!” he said, clutching his hair, feeling his fingers go numb. “And you know all that… about me?”
“Not everything, but I know enough. You’re good, much better than I expected. But you’re just starting out. If you were really good, then you would have seen even more. I don’t suppose you caught my name?”
“Flora,” he said, only just aware of it. “You don’t look like a Flora.”
“How would you know what I look like?” she said, with a snort. “This isn’t me. Everyone sees me how I want them to—it helps me pass. I saw the person you least expected me to be and ran with it. I’m not the sorority-princess you see before you.”
Alex stopped dead in his tracks. So this was what, an illusion? She could do that? He tried to focus his powers and stare through it, but she didn’t budge; the too-red lipstick continued to smile at him, clearly more bored than amused.
“You’re lying… you can’t do that,” he said.
“Hello, I’ve been following you for weeks—have you ever seen me before? Of course not, I was other people. Not that you’d have noticed me either way.”
He felt dizzy, almost nauseous; she had to help him to a nearby bench before he collapsed altogether. She took his hand and patted it affectionately, like a big sister or indulgent mother. By slow degrees he calmed down, gulping his fear and paranoia. Who was she… and what could she do to him if she wanted (and what did she want)?
“Look, I know this is a lot to take in. I should have come out to you more slowly. I planned to. But you seemed so helpless back there. So I tell you what: take a few days. I’m going to drop the disguise, just be myself. I’ll be around. Try to find me. When you find me, you’ll be ready. And then we’ll talk.”
“No… you can’t just, I mean, I want to know—”
“You will, I promise; when you’re ready. When you can find me.”
“But how will I know? I can’t see through all that. You’re too…”
“Awesome?” she said, with a mock-seductive grin. “I know, I’m totally smoking hot. But I’ve had to learn on my feet; I didn’t have much of a childhood. You’ll get there, I can help you. Just chill.”
With that, she gave a quick squeeze of his hand and got up. He stared hard at her—through her—to capture or memorize the essence of who she was. The only thing he could glean from the layers of disguise was something deep and rich… like coconut? But also something else, like an exotic flower perfume. It was damn hard to read.
“Hide and seek. Just like when we were kids, remember?”
With that, she walked off, gradually blending into the dozens of students bobbing up and down across the quad.
* * *
The next few weeks were a blur of missed classes, late work, failed exams. He couldn’t concentrate on anything else, and spent most of the day haunting the quad, wandering from one building to the other, reaching out. Once in a while he thought he found her, but it turned out to be a stray signal that led him halfway across campus on a fruitless search. He finally had to admit he really didn’t know what he was looking for or how to find her. For all he knew she was every girl in every class (and every guy?). When he ate in the cafeteria, she was every brunette he walked past, sat across from, bumped into, and handed his tray to. I mean, hell, she might as well be a lunch lady with a name like Flora!
In fact, that’s exactly how he found her. He realized that he was specifically targeting cute girls, weird girls, foreign girls—they hogged his attention. It’s not that he avoided obviously unattractive girls, but he somehow felt… she wasn’t. That he didn’t want her to be. That’s probably why he couldn’t find her… he was looking for himself, for his own dreams and desires. Not for her.
So he stopped looking. Stopped thinking about looking. Instead, he just listened. He did his work, he went to class. He let all thought of her fade into the white noise of his existence, so when she did emerge, it would be just at the periphery of his sight, where he would be most likely to see her. Naturally, it didn’t work right away, but one day—a Tuesday, right after one of Dr. Schmidt’s more interminable discussions—he saw her. Well, maybe not her, but someone he had seen before, someone who was strangely familiar.
A girl, about eleven or twelve, getting off a bus with four or five other kids and walking toward a building at the edge of campus. She was completely normal, nondescript… except for the way she looked at him. Like she knew him. And when she did, he got a flicker of something, a kind of jolt in his mind that immediately subsided. So he followed the kids from a distance and watched them file through a door that was being held open for them by a student dressed in some kind of uniform (khakis and a blue shirt with a logo). Once the last kid disappeared, he quickened his steps and approached the door, which had just closed with a hiss of hydraulics. He looked through the little window in the door, which revealed a long, well-lit hallway ending in a stairwell.
Opening the door, he entered the building unchallenged and began poking around, seeing posters advertising various scientific academies and competitions, along with a billboard of photos captioned “Camp Incredible 2019!” But before he took another step the smell knocked him backwards: coconut! And that other smell—the flowery one! The very smell she exuded was blanketing the hallways.
He inspected the nearest classroom: a group of children were sitting around a table littered with crayons, scribbling away on a shared tablet of paper. Cute enough, until he realized they were each drawing part of an intricate design, starting at the edges and working their way in… flawlessly. He watched mesmerized, the little hands like wasps building a nest to some instinctive design rehearsed over the ages. How in the world…?
“Can I help you, sir?” someone asked.
He turned around and a student worker approached, the logo of the building emblazed on her shirt: WINGS.
“Oh, yeah, I was looking… for my sister? I think she’s here already. Left her notebook at home. Thought I could bring it to her.”
“Oh, she must be in our Active Interdisciplinary Learning Series. The bus just arrived—they start at 3:30. Super smart kids, you must be so proud.”
“Oh, sure. But I never really understood what she’s doing here… we’re not that close. Is this some kind of gifted-and-talented program?”
“You could say that,” she nodded, then added, confidentially, “but these are the gifted-and-talented among the gifted-and-talented. You’ve never heard of WINGS?”
“I didn’t even know it was a thing.”
“Oh, it’s a thing. WINGS is based on active interdisciplinary learning in a content-rich environment. We allow gifted behaviors to emerge in students of both regular and special classrooms, following the latest developments in Enaction Theory and domain-specific knowledge.”
“Wow, you’ve really got that memorized,” he said, with a laugh. “Is this a work-study position?”
“Er, no, I don’t go here—I graduated from Stanford,” she said, with an air of condescension.
“So these kids… how do they get in?”
“Well, each student is tested by a psychologist using either the WPPSI or the WISC, depending on their age. They’re both basically IQ tests. WINGS accepts only children who score in the 95th percentile or above.”
“Did you go to WINGS?” he asked.
“Please,” she said, giving him another look. “So what’s your sister’s name? We still have time before class starts.”
“Oh, ah, Flora.”
The worker froze for a beat, then recovered with an uneasy—or intimidated—grin.
“Wow, you’re her brother? That must be something… I mean, she’s our star student. Basically calls the shots here. They say she got a 143 on the Mensa alone. Is that true?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know—my mom keeps track of that stuff. Can I see her?”
“Absolutely! Please, follow me, sir,” she said, adopting her most obsequious demeanor.
Alex followed her past several classrooms, most of them with closed doors (with muffled, ethnic music) and down a series of hallways until they reached a nondescript door that read “332.” The worker knocked and they waited a few seconds before hearing a click. It opened a crack and the worker whispered something that sounded like “Visitor for Miss McGee.” She then gestured Alex inside and stepped abruptly away, as if she had been warned—and was only too happy to heed the warning.
Inside, he found a large, sterile-looking classroom with beams and pipes sweeping over an enormous skylight. Small tables were scattered across the floor, each one with three plastic chairs; some had computers, but most were littered with sketches and drawing utensils. The room was empty except for an older teacher, who was directing him toward a young girl at a far table. She didn’t seem to notice them, her attention consumed with the charcoal sketch spread out before her.
“Flora? May I disturb you for a moment?”
“Mmmm?” she said, without looking up.
The teacher gave a nervous laugh, almost like a student asking her big scary teacher to use the restroom.
“You know I hate to bother you when you’re concentrating, but you have a visitor. I think he’s your older brother? Were you expecting him?”
“Oh, right, I left something at home. Alex brought it. Can you let me talk to him for a minute?” she said, still sketching.
“Yes, of course, I’ll be right outside. We’ll start class in a few minutes… or, you know, whenever you’re ready.”
The teacher ducked outside and closed the door. Alex was left alone with the girl who he still couldn’t believe was her, the one. How could it be? She was a fairly attractive college student, witty and knowledgeable, not some brainy little twerp in an after-school program! The sound of her sketching seemed to grow and grow until it reverberated against the walls and the skylight. He was about to say something—he himself didn’t know what—when she snapped, “Not with words. Talk the other way.”
With your mind. I don’t want them listening. They’re first-class snoops.
Then, with her actual voice, she said, “Thanks for bringing me my notebooks. I would be totally lost without them. It was super sweet of you.”
Say “No problem, Sis,” or something like that. Just for show.
“Er, no problem… Sis,” he repeated.
So, I guess you have questions. I’m not what you expected, am I? Now you understand the disguise. But not what I’m doing here, or what I wanted with you. Or what I’m going to ask you before you go.
“That smell…” he said, since the room positively reeked of it in here.
“Coconut hibiscus,” she smiled, leaning back in her chair. My idea, I had them buy gallons of it. Very conducive to our work. Some people see music as color—synethesia—whereas we experience thoughts, memories, and emotions as smells—a form of phantosmia. Soon you’ll learn to manipulate them as I have.
So this place… they trained you?
Trained me? God, no. They don’t know the half of what I can do. As far as they know, I’m just ‘gifted-and-talented.’ But I came here to be close to the university. I’m looking for more of us. I’ve found seven so far; you’re the eighth.
Alex started. Seven? At this university?
There’s more than you might think. Unfortunately, once they get to be your age, it’s almost too late. They stop believing in their gifts, make excuses, blame it on too many comic books and TV. I tried to mentor a few of them, but I had to give up. They could never find me.
“So I… I’m the first?” he said, startled.
She gave him a sharp look, reminding him not to speak where the nosy teachers could hear them. She then said something irrelevant about a party their mother was planning, while simultaneously responding: Yes, you’re the first I could guide like I wanted. I knew you would be shocked, that you might run away when you learned the truth. But what can I say, I’m a genius twelve year-old telepath. And I’m building an army.
Alex yelped before he could swallow it down. But he took care to respond in her head.
An army? Look… is this some kind of joke? Are you just messing with me? Is this like—what, a prank? For you and your pals?
I don’t have any “pals.” I’m a freak. My own parents don’t know what to do with me. And if they really knew what I did, or what I was planning to do…
Alex paced the room nervously, his head starting to throb. He wanted to spit out a thousand questions, to ask how she was so good at this when he, after so many years, could only pry loose a few secrets. At her age he didn’t even know he had the ability to do anything more than make a few good guesses, like the number of jelly beans in the jar at the State Fair (he always won). “You were born lucky, kid,” his father used to tell him. But apparently not as lucky as some.
I don’t know… this is crazy, I mean, you—this place—what am I doing here? I’m not powerful like you. I’m not a genius. And besides, you’re just a kid, not… not the Wizard of Oz or whatever!
I should hope not: he’s a creep and a charlatan. And as for you, if you didn’t belong here, I wouldn’t have wasted my time. Alexander, you have a gift, and that’s what I’m trying to do here at WINGS: develop gifts, realize potential. I’ve been slowly implementing my own ideas here, influencing the children, dominating the adults. Now, I can’t promise it’ll be easy, since you’re a lot older than I was—you’ll have to unlearn as much as learn. So I need you to trust me—”
He suddenly felt her doing more in his mind than having a conversation. She was opening doors, unlatching windows, letting in the light of the sun. Her sun. He recoiled, almost fell backwards, hands grabbing for the door to escape. She stood up and he froze in place, his arms and legs painfully stiff.
Alex! Wait… just try to calm down. Listen to me, I have a proposition. We’re both adults here, right?
Alex burst out laughing, because when she said it, he almost felt like she was the adult, and he a snot-nosed kid in the principal’s office.
“Just sit back. I’m going to go deeper than you’re used to. And it’ll take more than a few seconds. But when I’m done, I think you’ll understand. Okay? Do I have your permission?”
No, hell no! But he found himself suddenly curious, wondering what she could show him, and whether or not this was what he had always been waiting for. Still torn, still unsure, he nodded. What the hell. He sat in one of the red plastic chairs while she approached.
The next ten minutes were like nothing he had ever experienced. He traveled the world; he lived multiple lives; he grew old, then became young again; he learned a dozen languages and devoured books in each one; he left the earth and glimpsed a thousand worlds beyond, each one more beautiful, more exotic than the last. And the smells… scents that defied the endless combinations of leather, chypre, gourmand, marine, and citrus. When at last he found himself back in the chair, staring at the tiny girl before him, her eyes swimming with a glint of the knowledge he had just experienced, he knew; there was no going back.
“So, are you ready to join me?” she asked.
“Yes, master,” he said, breathing in her perfume.
Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central University (OK), where he teaches classes in British literature, World literature, and writing. His stories have recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction. Speculative North, and Leading Edge. You can also find his indie fantasy novels on Amazon, including the most recent, Let Sleeping Gods Lie (2020).
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Gifted-and-Talented”:
Author Joshua Grasso gave us an out-of-the box story with interesting characters and a very amusing, unexpected ending. He hooked us with a strong opening paragraph that entices the reader to want to know where it’s going. For us, that’s one of the most important aspects of any story. And what follows builds on that opening and doesn’t disappoint. On top of that, his ending nicely caps the piece and leaves us considering the chilling possibilities of what Flora’s army might accomplish.