The Dreamtime by Amy Sundberg
by Amy Sundberg
Mariah had never been skilled in the places between, and so her dreams had always been just that: neurons firing to recreate the daily grind of clients, missed appointments, adventures partially based on last night’s action movie. The past, the future, she could deal with them, no problem, but the dreamtime eluded her, and she was usually okay with that.
But even she wasn’t so blind she couldn’t tell there was something different about O’Malley when he approached her in her dreams that night.
She had dreamed of him before, of course. How could she not, after all they had been through together? The price of walking away from him still rang through her, and it had been, what, sixteen years? No, it was seventeen last May. Threads of him ran throughout her brain, association firing to association, ending, inevitably, with him. It didn’t matter whom she lay next to on any given night. Right now it was Tigris, a young artist who knew next to nothing about her. That was how she preferred it, nowadays.
But this time, O’Malley’s form was more … solid than usual, more real. They weren’t automatically swept on a romantic adventure, and he didn’t immediately grab her in his arms and press his lips against hers with the urgency of all the time apart. And O’Malley had never had her problems with the places between.
“You’re here,” she said, and she started at the sound of her voice, because her dreams never had any sound, just pictures and words and thoughts.
She risked a quick look around her. She was standing in a field; grass mere dirty green stubble on the ground. The horizon stretched out before her, the field so very flat, and the sky was a light gray, the color of the sidewalk pavement in front of her house.
O’Malley stood an awkward distance from her, several feet back, but with a relaxed posture, hands dangling loosely at his sides. “Yes. I’m here.”
Her body felt heavier with his words, as if her physical presence was made sturdier. Her tongue slid across the back of her teeth, lingering on the one rough spot. So realistic. “How are you?” The question was almost, but not quite, involuntary. The need to know was stronger than the common sense screaming at her to wake herself up.
“I’m well.” He took a single step toward her. “And you?”
“Fine.” The automatic answer, but it was true enough. She made an honest living reading the Tarot for a colorful array of clients, and if they were sometimes annoying, or late, or flaky with payment, well, it sure beat the alternatives. More importantly, she’d been tapped for an interview at an “alternative” boarding school where she’d have a chance to make a real difference. Maybe prevent more O’Malleys from happening to the world. Work that mattered was all she’d ever wanted. Well, that and him, but she’d take one out of two. More than what a lot of people got in a lifetime.
They stared at each other for several silent seconds. He held his trim body loose, years of T’ai Chi and Kenjutsu training showing in his perfect balance. He had grown a beard, patches of white flashing through the dark hair. Or at least, she corrected herself, he was choosing to show himself that way. Who knew what he looked like in real life? “What are you doing here?” she asked. Let the verbal sparring begin.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, and he took another careful step forward, as if testing how close he could get before she would bail on him and force herself awake.
“Yes,” she agreed, and she backed up one step to match his. “And you’ve never come before.”
“No, I never have. Are you sorry?”
“No.” The answer was instantaneous. “I haven’t forgotten what I said to you, O’Malley.” The name rolled from her lips like a caress. Should have been a curse, but she’d walked away, hadn’t she? Wasn’t that enough? She couldn’t expect perfection, even from herself. “I meant every word. No regrets.”
“Me neither.” Of course not. And the tides were still tied to the moon, and the sun still rose in the east every morning.
“Then why are you here? If you just wanted to say hi, you could have picked up the phone.” Hands balled into fists, she glared at him, waiting.
“Oh, Mariah,” he said, and he closed the distance between them before she could react and took both her hands in his. His hands were warm against the ice of her own. “Where I am, there aren’t any phones.”
She melted toward him for a second before anger at her reaction brought her to her senses. “O’Malley, what the hell?” She pulled away from him and backed up several paces. Having him muck around in her mind made her so angry she might have thrown something at him if there was anything to throw in this desolate place. “Leave my dreams alone!”
He shuffled his feet, the first sign he’d given that he wasn’t completely at ease. “Look, I need your help.”
She laughed then, a laugh full of remembered history, mostly bitter. “My help? What, you’re not All Knowing and All Powerful anymore? Forgive me if I find that hard to believe.”
“I’m serious, Mariah.” He waved his hand and the metallic sky above them darkened, black clouds winking into existence out of nowhere. They unleashed a relentless sheet of water, and within seconds Mariah was drenched through to her underwear, the cold turning her skin to gooseflesh. “You know there’s more to me than the surface,” he called over the hammering noise of the rain.
“Overdone, as usual,” she called back, furious at him for making her so uncomfortable. She turned away from him and walked in a random direction, her feet squelching in the mud.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, the sky reverting to its former impassive gloom, and O’Malley was walking by her side. She refused to look at him, but she said, “What makes you think I’d be willing to help you?”
“Old times’ sake?”
He reached out and touched her arm, but she didn’t stop. “Mariah… you don’t even know what I’m going to ask you to do.”
She ignored the hint of desperation in his voice, just as she had ignored his edge of superiority in the old days. “I don’t want to know. Leave me alone, and quit messing with my dreams. Got it?”
She forced her eyes open, back in the soothing lonely dark of her bedroom. No one slept beside her tonight; she had told Tigris she was busy. Might be near time to finish that affair anyway. The comparison between Tigris and her ex-lover wasn’t kind. Held next to O’Malley, Tigris looked like an ignorant and petulant child.
She propped herself up on her pillow and stared at nothing, unwilling to go back to sleep. On the other hand, at least Tigris was a basically decent human being. That had to count for something, didn’t it?
Just not enough.
To her chagrin, O’Malley’s name came up at her interview at Cliffside Prep the next morning. She was dressed in her dress slacks that were a decade out of style and a blue blouse she’d purchased at a thrift shop; reading the Tarot didn’t call for a wardrobe of business casual. Her foot bounced up and down as the headmaster spoke, and her thoughts raced from the amount of caffeine it had taken to get her going after such a sleepless night.
The interview started well enough. “You come highly recommended from several members of the Community,” the headmaster, Dr. Levine, said, referring to the society of paranormal sensitives that had organized itself during and after World War II. He shuffled through several papers on his massive wooden desk, and she marveled that he could find what he needed in all that clutter. “As I told you on the phone, we are in particular need of someone who can teach our young prodigies the elements of shielding and control. And we’d also like to offer an advanced Anchoring class next semester.” He tapped his desk twice and turned his gaze out the window to the panorama of reddish cliffs and pine trees. “As you can see, you won’t lack for scenery here. You’ll have access to all our facilities.”
She nodded. “How many students do you have?”
“A little under two hundred at present. All live-in, of course. We do our best to help them adjust, but those of our students born outside the Community have a bit of a struggle.” He shook his head. “I’m sure you understand. They often lack even the most basic control, and teenagers can be brutal to those who are different.”
She nodded and murmured something sympathetic. She couldn’t imagine attending a school like Cliffside Prep without the benefit of spending a childhood under the guidance of parents who were Community members.
He ran a finger down one of his papers. “I understand you acted as Anchor for Tom O’Malley at one time?” He looked up sharply and caught her eyes, making a quick mental probe that she easily deflected.
“That was a long time ago,” she said, ignoring the implied insult of the probe. “When I was young. I didn’t come from the Community either, originally, and I hadn’t figured out the ropes when I met him.”
He stroked his closely trimmed beard while continuing his close stare. “You worked with him for quite some time, yes? You must have been one hell of an Anchor.”
He was right – she and O’Malley had been quite the team, him with his mind manipulation abilities and her with the strength to tether him down so he never got lost in the personalities he was playing with. “I still am,” she said. “Once an Anchor, always an Anchor. And yes, we worked together for several years, but like I said, that was a long time ago.”
He leaned forward. “Why did you break off on your own, if you don’t mind my asking?”
She did mind, but she should have realized she’d have to explain O’Malley’s presence in her past. The Community was too small to avoid awkward questions. “I wasn’t comfortable with the work he was taking on,” she said, holding Dr. Levine’s eyes steadily. Back in those days, O’Malley had been getting deep into mind control games, and when one job went wrong and ended in a death, she’d met her limit and bailed. Not a personal high point, her relationship with O’Malley, but one that kept coming back to haunt her.
“Not a completely mutual parting, from what I’ve heard,” Dr. Levine said.
She sighed. He was playing with her – if he had any actual concerns about her past relationship with O’Malley, he wouldn’t have arranged the interview. “Which just goes to show my mind shielding abilities are extra sharp. It’s ancient history, Dr. Levine. I haven’t seen the man in almost twenty years.” Except in her dreams. She monitored her facial muscles, controlling them so they wouldn’t give away her lie. “I was clueless when I met O’Malley. I believe based on personal experience, that all young sensitives should receive the training they need to defend themselves. Especially those lacking a Community background. These kids need practical experience for when they leave your sanctuary here and have to face the real world.” A hostile world in which sensitives were either tools to be controlled or freaks to be feared.
“And you think you’re the one to give that to them?” Dr. Levine asked.
“I know I am.”
That night, she dreamed of O’Malley for the second time. At least they weren’t in that desolate field again. Thank God for small favors. Instead, she and O’Malley stood in front of a brightly striped food stand in the middle of a bustling carnival. “Can I get you something?” he asked. “Cotton candy, popcorn? A soda, maybe?”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, thrown off balance by his choice of setting. It was too small town America for him – he must be pulling it from her own mind. She shivered at the implications.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He grabbed a caramel apple from its place on the counter and tossed the vendor a few dollars. He bit into the apple with a loud crunch and made a show of enjoying it. The smell of the caramel wafted in her nose and she could almost taste it. Maybe she was hungry. Didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. “You like it?” he asked, gesturing at the carnival around them. “I thought I’d take you for a date.”
“How thoughtful. You even remembered the unbearable heat.” The air was still and so muggy it almost felt like she was swimming through it, and she could feel the moisture collecting at the nape of her neck and under her arms. In reality, it was February. She wasn’t used to the sun beating down with such ferocity. Especially without sunglasses.
They strolled down the dusty road, crowded in by booths and stalls with red and white awnings. The scene in front of her was a riot of color: red and blue balloons weaving in the sky, a large Ferris wheel with flashing green lights, a super-sized jump house of garish yellow and red plastic. Small children ran by them shrieking at the top of their lungs, with a noticeable dearth of parental figures. “If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll have to start taking sleeping pills,” she told him. That should keep him out of her head. “Can’t we just skip that part?”
“All I ask is that you listen to what I have to say,” he said. “Then, if you don’t want to help me, you’ll never see me again. Sound fair?”
“Sure. Whatever.” She didn’t trust him as far as she could spit. If she wouldn’t agree to help him of her own free will, he’d try to find another way. She had forgotten how bullheaded he could be when he’d set his mind on something. Well, maybe not forgotten, but she liked to gloss over it in her memory.
He led her to a conveniently vacant bench, shaded from the sun by a large oak tree. He sat too close to her, and she scooted down to the other end of the bench. “Okay, I’m listening.”
“I’m in … a bit of a situation,” he said, glancing around as if afraid someone would overhear.
She felt a pang of concern in spite of herself. She fidgeted with her hands and wished she had asked for something to eat after all. An ice cream, maybe. “A situation serious enough you’re bothering me after more than a decade?”
“Oh, come on, Mariah, you’re not going to pretend you haven’t been curious about what I’ve been up to?”
She kept her mouth shut. She had kept up with him in her own special way for the first several years of their separation. She knew about his studies in Japan, China, northern India, and Bangladesh. His studies and his … experiments. Eventually she’d decided to stop torturing herself.
“Well, right now I’m in Nepal. Held prisoner in Nepal, to be accurate.” He barked a laugh. “Maybe you were right about some of the things I’ve been dabbling in, because they’ve certainly gotten me into enough trouble this time.”
“I always knew karma would bite you in the ass someday,” she said. “I don’t know why you think I’ll do anything to help you get out of it.”
“This must be a vindicating moment for you.” He made the statement without sarcasm. She didn’t think he’d have been able to do that, back when she’d known him.
“Damn straight it’s vindicating,” she said, holding her hair away from her sweating neck. “Mind turning down the temperature just a touch?” He obliged with a flick of his hand, and she let her hair down in relief. “I have no regrets,” she continued, staring hard at him. “But I’m not going to pretend that it’s been easy for me, treading the line I do.”
He tugged at his ponytail. “I know how you feel about it.” He flashed a grin. “At least, I think I do. And I think you’re right. I shouldn’t have mucked with things I didn’t understand. At least, not in the real world. Of course, it was fun while it lasted.”
She raised her eyebrows at that last sentence. Playing with life and death, manipulating people into doing whatever he wished, playing markets and religions like they were Monopoly. Fun for him, who knew what chaos for everyone else. The rest of his words, though: what she would have given for him to say them back when they were still together.
Almost anything. She would have given almost anything.
But now his words rang hollow, like a promise fulfilled when it no longer mattered. “What brought about this little change of heart?” she asked.
“This group in Nepal, what they’ve got going on makes it look like I was doing cheap card tricks.” She gave him her best skeptical face. “Remember the riots last month in Islamabad?” She nodded, then realized what he was saying.
“Experts had been predicting that for awhile,” she said. “I didn’t read much about it, but from what I understand, the country was ripe for a coup. There’s no way….” Her voice died off. Too often, she had said there was no way when there were only too many ways. “There’s no way I can know if you’re telling me the truth or not.”
“You’ll have to trust me,” he said, and luckily for him, he didn’t smile at her this time, or she might have socked him in the mouth.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that,” she said instead. “So this group — do they have a name?”
O’Malley shrugged. “You’re better off not knowing it.”
She sighed. She’d forgotten how big into the cloak and dagger crap he was. “Okay, fine. This nameless group is messing with politics and probably other stuff more in line with your usual activities”—he nodded—“and now they’re holding you captive somewhere in Nepal, I’m guessing rural”—he nodded again—“and probably using you for diabolical purposes. Or maybe just torturing you, as the case may be. And you want me to do … what exactly?”
“I have a plan,” he said.
“Of course you do.” Now it was her turn to laugh, a short mocking sound. “You never learn, do you? Why not just work for this group yourself? It sounds like they’d be happy to have someone with your talents, and you’ve never suffered from personal qualms in the past.”
“I did work for them,” he said quietly. “But they’ve crossed lines even I won’t cross. If you can imagine it.” She didn’t want to think about it. Something O’Malley wasn’t willing to do for personal gain? That was a short list indeed. “I didn’t realize what they were involved in at first, and by then I had gotten in too deep. What can I say, I miscalculated. Badly.” He grimaced. Of course, Mariah thought, his mistake would bother him much more than whatever messed up shit this group was involved with. “The torture isn’t what I’m worried about; it’s what they might find out about my techniques. I’m still human; I can only hold out so long. And what I know how to do… well, it could be of great use to them.”
She didn’t like where the conversation was going. She knew O’Malley well, possibly better than anyone else living. She knew he could use words and ideas to twist her head inside out and back again. Was that what he was doing now? Her mind shields were too unreliable in the dreamtime to be trusted.
“All I need,” he said, “is for you to act as my Anchor. You know, like you used to do before. If I have someone to hold onto me, I’m sure I can wiggle free. Maybe even take some of them down.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head for emphasis. “No way. How do I know you’re not being held by the good guys? And you know I can’t act as your Anchor. I don’t know you well enough anymore. It’s a crazy idea.”
“Please, Mariah.” He scooted closer to her and moved to take her hands, then stopped mid-action. “If you read my future, today when you wake up, you’ll see I don’t mean any harm. You’ll be able to read that much, at least. And you’re the only one I can trust. You have to be my Anchor.”
“No,” she said in a sharp voice, and she stood up. “I’m not discussing it anymore. You know how weak I am in the places between. If I weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to force your way in here. Find another way.”
He stood up too. “I’ve tried,” he said. “Believe me, I’ve tried. And you’re a first class Anchor; don’t give me that false modesty bullshit. You can be an Anchor for me anywhere, even here, you know you can.” They stood face to face, looking at each other, and Mariah fought the urge to tell him she’d help him. “At least check,” he said. “And then, if you’re convinced, we can do it tomorrow night.”
“And if I’m not convinced?” she asked. His face was older than she remembered. His skin sagged just a touch along his jaw line, almost completely concealed by the beard, and pouches drooped under his eyes. Truth or more manipulation? She thought he was too vain to make it up, but it was hard to be sure.
“I don’t know,” he replied after a long pause. “See you tomorrow.” He waved his hand one last time, and she slept the rest of the night through with no dreams.
Mariah received a call the next morning from Dr. Levine. “We’d like to have you come in and teach a trial lesson. Assuming all goes well….” He trailed off, but she understood the message. She was almost in.
“I’d be happy to,” she said. “When were you thinking?”
“Tomorrow, if you’re free. The semester ends in two weeks, and I’d like to have everything lined up before then. Shall we say ten o’clock?”
All this Anchoring nonsense with O’Malley should be through by then, one way or another. “I’ll be there,” she said.
Meanwhile, she did as O’Malley asked. She checked and rechecked, doing three different spreads of cards, a rune cast, and then meditation and pure intuition, which was what worked best anyway. She was too close to events, though, to feel completely confident she was giving herself an accurate reading. And there was no one else she trusted to look for her.
That night, her dream began in the damp green hills of Ireland. She realized where she was immediately, the powerful scent of grass and clover hitting her full on, tinged by a hint of sheep. It was here in the stretches of misty green in Glendalough that she had first met O’Malley, back before he’d learned to be ruthless. She had been twenty-two years old, heady with the freedom of new-found adulthood and the realization that there was an entire world waiting for her to see.
She hadn’t been back to Ireland since the break-up, wouldn’t have voluntarily inflicted it on herself. Too many buried hopes dated from those days. Too many reminders of O’Malley remained to taunt her as it was.
She didn’t have much choice in the matter now, though, so she followed the faint path through the grass; it was anyone’s guess whether it was a hiking trail or a sheep track. The grass brushed against her bare legs, tickling them, and she wondered why she was wearing shorts. A little joke of O’Malley’s?
The path ascended gradually, then more steeply. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her because of the thick miasma of mist that coated the world, causing her to squint like she was looking through a fogged up window. She remembered her first visit here, her real visit, thinking the mist made it seem like she had walked into a dream. She hadn’t accepted her talents then, didn’t believe in anything she couldn’t explain with basic scientific principles. Otherwise, she might have wondered.
As it was, she had O’Malley to thank for spotting her during her trip, taking her under his wing, and teaching her who she really was…and of what she was capable. For their first couple of years together she’d been full of idealism. She’d believed they could change the world, not understanding how the ignorant would hate her or the unscrupulous would seek to use her. Not realizing the world would chew her up and spit her back out.
Her breath was becoming more labored as the path continued upwards, and her thighs began to burn. She was panting by the time she reached the summit of the hill, winning her way up beyond the reach of the mist. O’Malley was waiting for her, leaning back on a pack surveying the vista of never-ending green surrounding the milky gray lake beneath them. “I didn’t realize you were so sentimental,” she said, leaning against a nearby boulder to catch her breath.
“I didn’t used to be,” he said. He looked young, as young as when she’d first met him, no beard, full hairline, dark ponytail. A bit on the scrawny side. She looked down and saw her own twenty-two year old body, no pooch in the stomach, hips less curvy, perfectly smooth hands with no visible veins. “Come sit down.” He patted the grass next to him. “Tell me what you saw.”
Her hair was long again, and she had to brush it out of her way before sitting. “The future was hazy.”
“You always say that.” He said it with affection.
“It always is.” She leaned back on her elbows, appreciating the view. “You’re in a life and death situation, aren’t you?”
“I could see that much, but the results of tonight… I saw change, transformation, loss. I’m not confident what you have planned will work.”
“I am.” He looked at her steadily, and she couldn’t see a hint of fear in his expression. Even the desperation she had sensed before seemed to be missing.
She took a breath. “I’m convinced you don’t mean any harm by whatever you mean to do, however it turns out for you. So I’ll help you.” The corners of his mouth crinkled, and she held up her hand. “But only on the condition that if I sense anything wrong, I’ll stop immediately. You understand?”
His smile continued unabated. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
“I’m not sure I can hold you,” she said, not reassured by his reaction. “I haven’t done active Anchor work … in a long time.” Since she left him, in fact. The exercises weren’t the same as actually doing it. “We could fail.”
“We won’t fail,” he said. “I trust you, Mariah. I trust you more than I trust myself.”
He gazed out over the lake and hills for a few more moments, then sighed and sat up, crossing his legs and facing her. “Are you ready?” he asked.
She nodded, sitting up herself, and they locked fingers. Mariah closed her eyes, the picture of his face, young and confident and reckless, flashing against her retina. She matched her breathing to his with ease and focused on her idea of him, her twenty-two-year-old self’s idea of him, wrapping her thoughts around him like a safety line. Their hands fit together as though they had been molded to each other; she had loved him so much at times, she’d felt like they had to be touching or her heart would explode from her chest. Some things were impossible to forget.
His hands tightened on hers, squeezing until knuckles popped, whether his or her own, she wasn’t quite sure. She could sense something like static electricity building within him, and she wondered what was happening in the real world in Nepal at this very minute. Time ran differently there, of course; it could have been a second or several hours since they began to speak, impossible to tell. She brought her mind back to holding tight to her idea of him.
A strong wind began to blow, biting through her thin clothes and buffeting her hard enough that it was difficult not to cower away from it. Her hair whipped in a frenzy around her face, getting into her mouth, and she couldn’t hear anything but the moaning gale around her. O’Malley’s hands loosened, seemed like they might let hers go, and she could feel his body being pulled away from hers. “No,” she thought. “I am the Anchor.” She held on tighter, pinned him more firmly with her mind, but his fingers slipped, centimeter by centimeter, through hers. She was losing him, losing him to whatever crazy thing he was attempting to do, halfway across the world from her. She hated him for the past, hated him for the choices he’d made, for choosing power over her, for making her live without the completed feeling he gave her. She loved him for the same things. She was losing her grip on him, had already lost her grip a lifetime ago. The wind was too strong for her.
With a wordless cry, she barreled into him before she lost him, pushing her full body weight onto his and pinning him to the ground. She wrapped her legs around his, wrapped her arms around his neck, and held on. If he blew away, she would go with him, and she was okay with that.
Mariah had grown so accustomed to it, she didn’t notice right away when the wind stopped blowing. Her body was still entwined with O’Malley’s, and she pressed closer to him, dazed by what had happened. As her thoughts slowly reordered themselves, she untangled herself from him, moving slowly, reluctantly. He was looking at her, face flushed and triumphant. “We did it,” he said, and he pushed himself up and gave her a quick hug. “I told you we could.”
She pulled away. “Why are you still here?” she asked. She’d been assuming if they succeeded, he would disappear. Surely his full consciousness was needed in his physical body right now? “Did something go wrong?”
He looked down at himself and began to laugh, great big heaves that shook his body more like sobs. She watched him, torn between relief and dismay. “Nothing went wrong,” he finally said. He stood up and spun around in a circle, hands held up high. “Nothing went wrong!” he shouted. “I’m free!” His voice echoed strangely through the hills: free free freeeee.
Mariah held her body tense. She didn’t understand what was going on. “When are you going back to your body?” she asked.
His grin was fierce as he replied, “Never. I’m here for good.”
Panic shot through her. “Here? In my head?”
“No, not in your head,” he said. There was that condescending tone she knew so well. “In the dreamtime. I’m young again, Mariah. I can go wherever I want. Can make wherever I want.”
“But, your body. What happened to it?” He shrugged. “Is it–dead?” she whispered. He shrugged again, as if it didn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t, not to him.
“Believe me, I gave a little surprise to our friends in Nepal,” he said instead. “And now, no limits.”
He looked so happy she hated to say anything, but—“But it’s not real, O’Malley. You’ll be living through a series of dreams.”
“Who’s to say what’s real?” he asked, face suddenly inscrutable. “Come with me, Mariah.”
He grabbed her hands and stared hungrily at her until she looked away. “Come explore with me. We’ll be young forever. Whatever you want, you can have here. The past doesn’t matter anymore. Think of the fun we can have. You don’t have to go back to your grind of a life.” He touched her cheek tenderly. “Stay with me.”
To live in a dream with O’Malley for as long as she liked. Was it really possible? “Yes,” she said, and then quickly, “Maybe. I don’t know.” She felt her secret desire for such a life warring with her knowledge of the way O’Malley worked.
He kissed her then, his stubble rough on her face, and it was as if all those years apart had never happened. She savored the moment, then pulled away, hands clasping his. “I need one last day at home. To tie up loose ends, put my affairs in order.” Make a decision when she wasn’t high from the aftereffects of Anchoring.
His smile wasn’t patronizing, she told herself, and he said, “If you must. Tomorrow night, then?”
He pulled his hands away from her, and she woke up. Her palms were sweating, and when she held her hand to her cheek, it felt like a brand.
In the classroom the next day, she noticed the boy right away, huddled in the back left corner seat, his frayed flannel shirt hanging off his skinny frame in great folds as if he was trying to be invisible. Maybe he actually was, but if so, he had a lot to learn. During her roll call, he identified himself as Billy Farrow.
Mariah began the lesson she had planned, a very basic introduction of mind shielding techniques. The students shifted restlessly in their desks, their whispers deliberately audible, and she did her best to ignore the observing teacher’s sympathetic smile. Would she even be around this time tomorrow? She still wasn’t sure.
A skinny boy with olive skin and an overconfident smirk on his face raised his hand when she was in the middle of a sentence. “We’ve learned this already,” he said without waiting to be called on. “When we were, like, babies.” The class erupted in laughter, and Mariah felt something close to panic. She ran down the list of names until she found the boy’s: Owen Mazio. She frowned at him, and he grinned right back, a challenge in his eyes.
Five minutes later, she’d finally quieted the class enough to continue talking. O’Malley was right. She could join him tonight and never have to face these ungrateful teenagers again. Feeling reckless, she skipped the rest of her lecture on the theory behind shielding in order to get right to the practical. This caught the class’s attention, and the whispering finally died down as she explained different techniques.
Feeling slightly more confident, she divided the class into pairs to practice and set them a simple exercise. She didn’t expect much – this was a freshman class, so they shouldn’t be able to hurt each other in spite of their weak grasp of shielding. She was coaching two girls at the front of the room when laughter cued her something was going wrong.
Standing precariously on his under-sized desk, Billy gyrated his hips and swung his flannel shirt in a circle around his head. The dark scowl on his face was the only sign he was being forced to dance against his will. His partner Owen, the same boy who’d given her trouble earlier, grinned with malice while humming an accompanying soundtrack.
Mariah strode to their side of the room in seconds flat, grabbed Owen by the arm, and threw up her own shield around Billy with practiced skill. Billy froze for a moment, then jumped down from the desk, his face beet red. “This is not acceptable behavior in my class,” Mariah said, winding a thread of ice into her voice that she knew Owen would feel inside. “Go see the headmaster immediately and tell him what happened.” She let go of his arm, and for a moment they stared at each other. Owen looked down first, and mumbling something, he slunk from the room.
“Does anyone else wish to join him?” she asked in the new, authoritative voice. None of the class would meet her eyes. “Then let’s move on to the next exercise. Billy, please practice with”—she checked her roster and selected two boys who sat in the front row—”Dean and Anoup.”
She explained what she wanted them to do, and warned by Owen’s example, the class listened in a subdued fashion. The remaining exercises went without incident, and at the end of period bell, the observing teacher congratulated her and offered a brief commiseration on teaching freshman before joining the students filing out. Billy hung at the back of the group. “Billy?” She called his name before she thought, and he stopped in front of her.
“Yes, Miss Carlson?” he asked, looking after the others.
“Have you been here long?”
He swallowed and looked at the floor. “This is my first semester,” he said in a low voice. “That’s why I can’t even do a basic shield.” He hesitated. “Will you be coming back to teach us?”
She raised her eyebrows and tried to be noncommittal. “It’s possible.” He ducked his head and took a few steps toward the door, but he stopped at her next words. “Do you like it here, Billy?”
He shrugged. “I don’t come from the Community, like most of them.” That was all he said, but there was a complete story of suffering in his voice, and her heart went out to him as she imagined the bullying he must face. Most of these students had been raised knowing about the Community from the beginning, their parents prepared to teach them basic skills as their gifts manifested. But a few unlucky children suffered from the vagaries of genetics and developed gifts out of thin air, with no sympathetic adult to help them understand what was happening. She saw her younger self in his stooped posture, his sallow spotted skin, and his bewildered, awkward air. The world would come close to ripping him to pieces, just as it had tried to do to her.
“Don’t worry,” she said, slipping into the same soothing voice she would use to comfort a distraught client. “Some of the strongest sensitives don’t have a Community background. I didn’t. You’ll learn to control your shields in no time.”
He nodded, a tiny almost-smile disappearing before it had a chance to form, and scurried for the door, his shoulders a fraction more relaxed than they had been a minute before. She stared after him for a long time.
She found O’Malley on top of the same hill, lying flat on his back staring up at the sky. She lay down beside him.
“Time is a funny thing now,” he said. “I thought you’d be here sooner.”
“How long was it for you?” she asked.
“It could have been years,” he said. “It’s hard to say.”
“I can’t come with you, O’Malley.” She was relieved to be looking at the sky instead of him when she said it. “I’m not ready to leave the world behind. I still have work to do.”
“I thought you might say that.” She turned to him, and his face looked naked, vulnerable. “Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”
He was asking her instead of taking what he wanted? Surprises never ceased. Even so, she shook her head. “I only came to say goodbye. For good, this time.” She had meant to say it with a straight face, but her last word came out with a quaver.
He sat up then, put his arm around her, and stroked her hair. “Not to worry, Mariah. Stubborn to the last. I like that in a woman.”
She laughed through her tears. “Try not to get too lost out there, will you?”
He gave her a last squeeze. “You kidding? I don’t like where I am, I can make something up from scratch. I’ll never be lost again.”
They both stood up. “I hope you’re right.” She said it as if the words could make it so.
“Be well,” he said.
They studied each other one last time, and she leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You too,” she whispered.
He walked away, and she watched as his figure got smaller and smaller, until he dropped off behind the crest of a hill and she couldn’t see him anymore. She took a last look around at the Irish hills, his hills. The sun was setting, a few last rays casting twisted shadows where there shouldn’t have been any.
She looked forward to waking up.