In my earliest memory, Dad saw something on TV that bought up painful memories. I dropped my toys and ran to Mum’s office, clutching her leg as tears streamed down my face.
Mum rushed to his side, and from the office I was bombarded with fears I wished I could make go away. Later, they asked me to explain what had happened.
I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words, and even if I did, I hadn’t yet realized how different I was.
It would be two more years before I realized that I could read minds.
It happened at my grandparent’s house. It was Gran’s birthday, so we had a big family BBQ.
I was five and knew there was something different about me. I always said the wrong things, and I knew too much. I didn’t understand why. I also didn’t understand why other people couldn’t just know what I was thinking or feeling.
I knew as soon as we got there that my grandparents hated Dad. They thought he was trying to spread his godlessness to Mum. That he was still on drugs. That I was a poor neglected child that would grow up just like my father. They were disgusted by his very presence. They felt weary about me.
Should we allow Seb to play with the other children? He’s a bad influence.
I hated that everyone was smiling and hugging as if everything was fine. I couldn’t understand why my parents put up with that hate. I’ve since learn that the whole world is like this.
I forget what set me off. I remember storming to the grill where Dad and Grandpa were cooking and laughing. I yelled so hard that the yard went quiet. I told Grandpa that he wasn’t being fair.
“You’re wrong!” I shouted at Grandpa. “Dad doesn’t do drugs. Not since I was born.”
“Seb, shush” Dad said, crouching down to me. I was momentarily overwhelmed. All eyes were on me. All thoughts were on me. Judgmental, amused, confused. It was scary.
“He says you do drugs” I said. “He says you’re a bad dad. It’s not true!”
“Sebastian, none of that matters to us” Grandpa said. But I could read his thoughts. He felt vindicated that I was causing a scene.
“You’re causing a scene” I said.
“Seb,” Dad said, holding my shoulder and speaking gently. “No-one is saying I do drugs.”
“Grandpa did” I said. “Just then.”
“No, he didn’t” Dad said. “I was talking to him; you must have misheard. Now apologize to Grandpa.”
“He said it quiet” I said. “Without moving his lips. He said it to himself. Without words.”
Dad thought I was lying now. Grandpa however thought that I sounded like I was reading his mind.
“Yes” I said, pointing to Grandpa before he could say anything, glad to finally have a term that matched what I was experiencing. “I read your mind. I read your mind in my mind. He did too say it Daddy. He said it in his head and I read it.”
I was so excited about finding words to describe what I felt that it took me a while to notice the chaos I caused. I noticed Dad recalling past events with a new, dreadful enlightenment. Grandpa went red at the threat of exposure. As for the other adults…
A gift, a curse, a child’s pretend story, an invasion of privacy. The yard was silent, but everyone was thinking about me. They were scared of me. Sacred of what I might know. About what I could say. All the attention was overwhelming.
My cries broke the silence. I didn’t want to be a scary monster. I just wanted their thoughts to go away. Dad and Grandpa took me inside. People began talking in the yard, but the din didn’t ease. They were still thinking about me.
When the overload cleared, Mum, Dad, Grandpa and Gran were all gathered around me. They were afraid. Afraid to take me to the hospital, afraid of what was happening to me, and afraid of me.
“I’m not bad” I said. I didn’t know who was afraid of me. I was too disorientated. I just knew that near me, someone – or maybe everyone – was afraid of me. “I’ll be good. I won’t read minds anymore.”
“It’s okay Seb” Mum said. “It’s okay. We’re not angry with you. What number am I thinking of?”
“Six” I said.
“That’s right” Mum said. “And now?”
I didn’t want to play dumb games. Dad was thinking of all the bad thoughts I must have gotten from him over the years. All the memories, all the desires, the fears, the trauma. He was thinking that he was dragging me down with him. I took his hand.
“I love you Dad” I said.
He broke down crying. I thought I said the right thing, but I had pushed him over the edge. He had decided that it was too dangerous to be around a telepathic son. It was in that moment that he decided he had to get out of my life before he contaminated me.
I didn’t bother trying to convince him to stay. I could see the abuse he had suffered, and understood he wanted to protect me. I wanted to make him say, but I didn’t know how.
The very next day he was gone. Gone completely. Until the police came to Mum three years later, asking what she wanted done with his body.
I blamed myself. Despite what Mum told me, she blamed me too.
I had lots of friends once. But when I was nine I couldn’t resist showing off my telepathy. I was going through an X-men phase and wanted to be just like Charles Xavier. He was one of the few telepaths that wasn’t a villain or insane.
At first, my friends thought it was cool. But then there was jealousy. Then embarrassment. I could see all that, but I was a dumb kid. I was happy just being me and made no secret about knowing what they were thinking. I even made the terrible mistake of responding to their thoughts before they had spoken.
Mum moved us. She hated having to leave our old house for an apartment in a bad neighborhood. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I had telepathy. I tried to be normal, but they guessed anyway, even if they didn’t believe.
It’s hard to be normal when you absorb everyone’s secrets. When you know so much about your classmate’s and teacher’s inner thoughts, it can sometimes be hard to respect them enough not to throw those secrets back in their faces.
Mum said that no-one was perfect. Everyone had thoughts and impulses that they couldn’t control. That they were ashamed of. I had to learn to judge them by their words and actions instead.
I said that she was only saying that to make herself feel better about hating me.
“I don’t hate you” She said.
I wish you were just a normal kid and I still had my husband and my house she thought.
I walked away. She realized that I could see how much she blamed me for Dad leaving and hid in her work. I was so lonely I started taking her advice, but it was too late. No-one at school wanted anything to do with the angry freak that knew everything about them.
In my final year of primary school, Khalid’s family moved into town. Instantly, he was my fellow outcast. His parents dressed and talked funny. He and his siblings ate different food and preyed all the time.
I got him to watch X-men with me, trying to see what he thought of Charles Xavier. He enjoyed the fiction. I questioned him about the superpowers as we left the theatre. I concentrated on Khalid’s thoughts harder than I had concentrated on anyone before. I asked him if he would trust a person who could read his every thought.
“It would depend on the person” Khalid said.
It’s a scary superpower he thought.
I didn’t ask more, but I wanted to know more. I had to know if he’d accept me. Without saying a word, his thoughts shifted as if examining that question. That type of intimacy was reserved for Allah, so meeting a human with that power would cause a great deal of unease. On the other hand, Khalid didn’t think there was anything morally wrong or forbidden about telepathy. He also thought if he trusted and loved others, the same courtesy would be extended to him. Both impulses would come into conflict if I came out as telepathic, but I was Khalid’s best friend. His only friend. It would take a bigger betrayal to turn him against me.
I turned around and noticed that Khalid wasn’t walking with me anymore. He was rooted in place, head in his hands. Then I realized that he wasn’t thinking about anything except the thoughts relevant to my questions. I rushed back to him, calling his name in panic.
“Ahhh” he said, moving his hands and loosening up. “I just had the worst headache. And my thoughts were like, like – “
I can’t tell Seb I got possessed by a demon. He doesn’t believe in that, he’ll think I’m crazy.
“Fuzzy?” I said. I comforted my friend, trying not to focus too much on his thoughts. He had experienced a complete hijacking of his train of thought. Not only did he have no control of his thoughts, but none of his involuntary and random impulses had anything to do with his own perception.
It was then that I realized that my powers might be greater than I imagined. It terrified me. I never wanted to know just how powerful I was. I had read Khalid’s fear, and I hated it.
I ended up telling him what I was though. He wasn’t happy about what I had done to him, took it surprisingly well. Over the next few years, he helped me manage my power. We found that music distracted me from the thoughts, so I walked around with headphones on. While looking to expand my media library, we got into metal, as if we weren’t already scary outcasts. When I realized that having something in my mouth helped, we both started smoking.
Khalid’s parents hated me for corrupting their son, but they were also happy he had a friend. I could live with that. There were a lot of beliefs and prejudices they had that I wished I could erase, but they were kind, loving people, so I accepted them. Especially as my own mother became more distant.
Khalid’s fear never entirely left though. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but I knew it was there. I also knew that there was an unspoken condition on our friendship, that Khalid himself wasn’t consciously aware of.
Hijacking another person’s mind was unforgivable, and if I did it again I was a monster.
But I did do it again. The first person I intentionally hijacked was my mother. After years of neglect with good intent, I got it into my head that she didn’t love me. I had to know for sure, so I stormed into her office and hijacked her.
Good news, she does love me. Bad news, she was so terrified of me that she begged my grandparents to take me in. They did, but they still hate me, and I them. I chafed at living in their house with their draconian rules. I learnt how to pick pockets and read PINs. I stole thousands of dollars. I got my license, bought an old car, and started sleeping in it.
I didn’t tell Khalid any of that. He just knew that I was fighting with Mum and my grandparents sucked. I could have used his support, but I needed him to think I was decent even more.
We went into the city for a gig one night. It a great. Until afterwards when we found ourselves on a gloomy train with flickering lights. It was 1am, and the only other passengers were a bunch of drunk lads who couldn’t let Khalid pass without the standard repertoire of racism and Islamophobia spewing from their mouths.
We moved to another carriage. One of our new fans followed, shouting that they were just joking around. I read the just keep walking, there are people ahead in Khalid’s mind. I could read the who does this brown loser think he is walking away from me? in the redneck’s mind.
Once we were in the next empty, graffiti-covered carriage, I stopped to glare at the redneck. I needed to know if he planned anything violent. I looked into his mind. He noticed the intrusion and let out a slurred ‘what the…?’
“Seb?” Khalid asked. Are you crossing the line?
“I’m making sure we’re safe” I said.
“What the…?” Redneck said.
He wasn’t violent, but he hated us. He hated Khalid. I was used to seeing that hate. I’d always wanted to get rid of it. Now that I’d let myself hijack a mind I cared nothing for, the temptation to try was huge.
“Let him go Seb” Khalid said. “I can see people through the next door. We’ll be safe.”
From him I read that he didn’t hate me for what I was doing now. But he was so scared. Of me.
Let’s just go and keep being normal.
I reached deeper into the redneck’s mind.
“What are you doing?” Khalid asked. What are you becoming?
“Ever since what happened with my Mum I’ve been wondering if I could change people’s thoughts” I said. “If I can get rid of the hate.”
This was a lie. I’d been wishing for that power ever since I saw my grandparent’s toxic thoughts about Dad. If it wasn’t for Khalid, I’d have tried to rewrite thoughts as soon as I found out I could reach into minds, instead of just watching them from afar.
“Please, stop” Redneck – Jonesy to his mates. Little Billy to his mother, I’d dredged up that much without trying, I had never exactly practiced this – pleaded with me.
Khalid was silent. He hated me right now.
“Why are you like this?” I asked, forcing Jonesy to relive the taunts he had given to Khalid before. Jonesy screamed. I had no idea how I was meant to go about editing thoughts. I started with imagining I could rip out the memories and the happiness they triggered. I visualized it, and suddenly my head was killing me. A massive, instant migraine made me crouch to the ground with my head in my hands.
I still saw Jonesy fall forward, crying and with his nose bleeding.
I couldn’t read anything from him.
Khalid grabbed my shoulder. I let him lead me away. He marched me through the train, and we planted ourselves on the seats closest to the driver’s compartment. I was shaking as we sat. Not just because of the encounter with Jonesy and my headache, but because I could still read Khalid’s turmoil. I sat next to him for thirty-eight minutes, watching his heart break.
The worst part was knowing that in the end he wouldn’t abandon me. He was prepared to jump through any hoops and convince himself that what happened wasn’t such a bad thing. But he would never not be terrified by me.
Just like my Mum. Just like everyone who knew me.
We reached our station and got off. Khalid lingered, and I could read him watching the windows of the departing train for any sign of the redneck gang.
“I saw them get off earlier” I said. I wasn’t supposed to react to unspoken thought. I also didn’t care anymore. Neither did Khalid. It seemed trivial.
“That’s good” Khalid said.
We’d broken the silence, but not the seal. We didn’t speak again until after I stopped the car in Khalid’s driveway.
“Thanks for being my friend Khalid” I said as he undid his seatbelt.
“I’ll always be your friend” he said. I have to be your friend he thought.
“You’re lying to yourself” I said. “I know the truth though. I know everything that everyone thinks about me.”
“Seb I’m not going to turn my back on you” Khalid said. I can still be around him. He’s not a danger to me.
“You saw what I did back there” I said.
“I know you’re not a monster”
Seb can control himself. He doesn’t have to be a monster.
“Khalid, you don’t know all the fucked-up things I read in people every day. And no, I don’t need your pity.”
“And I don’t need yours” Khalid said, thinking about how if I’d just respected his ability to pick his own battles, this whole scenario could have been avoided.
“I want to know what I can do” I said. I recoiled at his disgust.
“You can’t seriously want to experiment with people’s minds” he said.
“I don’t know what I want” I said. “But I know what you want.”
“Why don’t we talk about this on Monday?” He asked.
Maybe everything will go back to normal.
“You know it won’t go back to normal” I said.
The door to Khalid’s house opened, and his mother stepped outside, her relief at seeing Khalid home safe overshadowed by the wave of resentment she had for me.
Under her watchful eye, we parted like normal. I said ‘see you Monday’. I lied.
I drove away. Away from my friend, away from my normal life. My Dad had seen that my telepathy was a curse. He’d also seen that the only solution was to remove the terrible thoughts that would trouble me.
I kept driving. Away from everything I knew.