“Alright Mister Callaghan. When you’re ready.”
Matt smiled with a warmth that was serene, confident and utterly insincere. He drew a deep, semi-dramatic breath, took the old lady’s cold wrinkled hands and closed his eyes.
In the silence of the deserted classroom Matt Callaghan and Carol Blithe sat unmoving on opposite sides of the desk, her peering inquisitively – if not a little hopefully – over the top of her full-moon spectacles at the young man’s face, and him mentally counting ‘one-Mississippi, two-” until an appropriately mystical amount of time had passed.
Matt opened his eyes and calmly took his hands back.
“I’m seeing green,” he told her, “Green growing to red and fading to brown.” His brow furrowed and he put a hand to his temple. “I think it’s leaves. Plants. Red flowers.”
Across the desk, Carol’s eyes widened – and despite what Matt could only presume were her best efforts a look of comprehension dawned across her face. “And the brown?” she asked despite herself, in little more than a whisper. Matt faked a frown.
“Potential. Tomorrow or the next day. There'll be a package and…” he scrunched his face up so that he appeared slightly confused, “…you shouldn’t use it. It’s born of jealousy. Withering. There’s brown inside and out.” He looked up at Carol, still intentionally frowning. “Sorry if that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The examiner nodded mutely and made a little note on her notepad.
It was five days after Matt’s birthday, the rain had finally let up, and his powers of clairvoyance were being tested. Unlike most people in most schools across the country, Matt’s Powers Development grade wasn’t assessed through standard grading, because clairvoyants it turned out were so rare (rare, in fact, almost to the point of non-existence) that nobody had ever developed any standardised tests to evaluate them. This put Matt’s teachers and the Board of Education generally in a somewhat difficult position – because it was one thing to have a student not subject to a strict lesson plan or actually learning anything about their powers, but it was a different matter entirely for the school not to be able to grade them. A PD grade was essential for getting into college and a Key Performance Indicator tied directly into Northridge’s funding, not to mention a potential discrimination lawsuit if they denied Matt the opportunity to earn one. So the school district was placed in the unenviable position of having to test Matt’s clairvoyancy without any clue how to do so, and Matt was placed in the unenviable position of having to have his clairvoyancy tested without actually having any.
In the end, the Board of Education and Matt’s parents had settled on half-yearly assessments, conducted by a specialist assessor brought in from outside the school district. In theory this was supposed to provide Matt with a blank and unknown subject on which to focus his second sight in order to accurately gauge its progression and extent. In reality, the assessments were a game where the assessors were unknowingly played from the word go, and where Matt, his life and lie on the line, had no intention of playing fair.
Without warning, Matt reached over and placed his hand on Carol’s cheek, causing the examiner to flinch. “There’s someone in your life whose name begins with ‘M’,” he informed her, his eyes once again closed, “And they’re going to need your support. Soon. Or sometime in the future. I… time is vague; I can’t see exactly. But they’ll need your help, and you can’t be reluctant to give it.” He withdrew his hand and opened his eyes just in time to see a look of comprehension – unmistakable this time – flash across his assessor’s face. Matt forced himself not to smile.
It had all started with a phone call. Matt, his voice deliberately slowed and mumbling, had called up the Board of Education offices under the pretence of being one of Northridge High’s security workers and requested the name of the visiting examiner so it could be “added to the authorised personnel list”. It was a trick he’d used a dozen times before, and the bored receptionist on the other end of the line had yet to question it, especially when Matt provided the identification number he’d memorised off Dyson Bradley’s badge.
And once he had a name, Matt Callaghan, child of the internet age, got to work.
The Board of Education website gave him Carol Blithe’s work email and biography. An online phonebook gave him her phone number and home address. From Google Maps he pulled up a view of her house and the surrounding neighbourhood, and from her social media profile (on which, like so many older citizens, she had neglected to update the privacy settings) he compiled a rough outline of her interests, hobbies, family and friends, and indeed, her entire life.
Carol Blithe was a lifetime teacher of decent yet modest means (judging by her home, which was nice but not too nice, as well as her recent five-day trip to Florida) with two adult children and a parakeet – a kind woman and successful educator (judging by the size of the bouquet her graduating class had got her last year) who lived alone and could resonate various materials by humming at different frequencies (thank you Department of Powers Registration open search function). The school she normally worked at was a four-hour drive from Northridge, and Matt had been sure to have a double-shot soy cappuccino (her regular order, from a marker scrawl on a cup in a picture of her lunching with a friend) waiting when she arrived.
“Knew you’d be tired from the journey,” he’d smiled kindly the second she’d walked in, passing her the Styrofoam cup.
And from there she was putty in his hands.
Successful assessments legitimised Matt’s deception and so when it came to assessments Matt bought his A game. The “M” person he’d alluded to was Mrs Blithe’s youngest daughter Melanie, who social media informed him had just started interstate at Brown and who by simple deduction would at some point require her mother’s assistance. The green with red flowers of course had been a reference to the rosebush blooming very visibly in Carol’s front garden, a magnificent and robust specimen that could never have grown that large without continual attention and care. The brown package, on the other hand, was a “free sample” of “lawn vitamins” Matt had put into the post only yesterday which was in reality potent plant poison – poison which would arrive at Carol’s 49th street home in a day or two and from which Matt’s “prediction” would now “save” her prize flowers.
But he wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
“There’s a man in a black coat,” he proclaimed, “A long black coat. He’s older, determined; I see him clearly.” Matt paused and looked across at the examiner, “Do you know anyone like that?”
“I-” Carol stammered – Matt knew she wasn’t supposed to give away any details about her life. But he didn’t need her to.
“If you don’t know him yet, you will,” he continued confidently, not in the least bit concerned about the probability of an older, single woman from a colder town at some point running into an older man wearing a black coat. “He’s facing a choice – though there isn’t really one. He won’t change, he can’t, not now. There’s a person around him, someone he’s linked to. He’s connected, but not connecting.” Mystic-sounding contradictory nonsense and good old-fashioned vaguery. Carol ate it up.
As the assessor continued to scrawl hurriedly on her notepad, Matt leant back in his chair and folded his arms, allowing a concerned shadow to pass over his face. When Mrs Blithe eventually looked up, she found the young “clairvoyant” staring her warily down.
“What is it?” she asked, an edge of fear creeping into her voice. Matt paused thoughtfully for a few seconds, apparently lost in contemplation, before slowly shaking his head and answering.
“I’m seeing growth,” he predicted, his eyes half-narrowed and his voice measured, “Somewhere around you. Someone, inside someone, growing internally. Except it’s not good.” Carol’s shoulders stiffened. “It’s insidious.” Matt let the corner of his lips droop slightly. “I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?” the examiner asked, her mouth half open, her pencil no longer scribbling notes, “Insidious, what do you mean by that?”
“Inherently wrong,” replied Matt, his gaze sympathetic yet unwavering, “Dangerous. Corrupted or corrupting. It’s not immediately obvious, but, given time…” His voice trailed off, and he watched with discrete satisfaction as the older woman’s mind churned through the implication of his words.
This, Matt felt, was one of the cleverer “predictions” he’d come up with. “Growth” and “internal” in reference to a person would generally lead someone to think of one of two things – babies, or cancer. Cancer, one of the few diseases still capable of killing in an age of superhuman healthcare, was still common enough to be worrying, and at fifty-eight, Mrs Blithe and her peers were its prime target – without knowing a thing about her, Matt could have practically guaranteed that she would or did know someone who’d be diagnosed. If Carol’s mind had gone to cancer, the first person she heard of being afflicted would be confirmation of Matt’s power – and if she took it to mean a baby, well, inevitably she’d know someone who was pregnant, and then it would be twenty-something years before Mrs Blithe could properly rule out the child she’d applied Matt’s prediction to being some kind of kitten-drowning psychopath. Alternatively, she might run into someone who’d miscarried, which would practically confirm Matt as a modern-day Nostradamus.
What kind of messed-up life am I living, he thought ruefully as Carol’s pencil scratched shakily across the paper, when I’m wishing death upon a stranger’s unborn baby. He gave a small sigh and glanced discretely as the clock on the wall hit 11:17, then watched with an expression absolutely lacking in any kind of surprise as the sound of Mrs Blithe’s phone ringing pealed out from her handbag.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her matter-of-factly, making a face as the examiner jumped half a foot in the air, “Nothing bad. It’s a telemarketer. Home insurance. One of those recorded calls.”
Which, Matt smiled to himself as he watched the wide-eyed woman fish the phone out of her handbag and hold it up to her ear with trembling hands, it unquestioningly was – since he’d programmed the robo-call to go through from his computer last night.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).