Matt didn’t remember going back to his locker. He didn’t remember pulling his phone out of his pocket and starting to write “Holy mother of-” to Taylor – he sort of just woke up halfway through typing before backspacing the entire thing.
Words couldn’t do it justice. Dazed and confused, his eyes stinging, a ringing in his ears from all the lightning, Matt stood in front of his locker, the corridor deserted, trying to put his thoughts back in order. He blinked his eyes open and shut a few times, trying to snap himself out of it, but his mind kept staggering. That… that was amazing. Off the charts, hands down, coolest thing he’d ever seen-
And also, maybe, absolutely, the most terrifying.
Jane Walker was not just an empath, Jane Walker was insane. Insane, talented, insanely talented. How many people had she just beaten? Twenty? Three dozen? And not just beat – destroyed. Wrecked, trounced, mopped the floor with, he’d… God, he’d thought she was going to die. Right there, with the all-engulfing ball of fire, he had really thought Coach Barton was going to let them kill her. No. Nope. Nah-ah. Not a chance.
Matt squeezed his eyes shut, trying to calm the adrenaline surging through his chest.
He needed air.
He shouldered his backpack and half-jogged off down the hallway. What was he going to tell people? Jane hadn’t done anything wrong but shoot, he thought, and a slight unease curdled inside him, this would not go down well. Powerful normal people got scholarships; powerful empaths got lynched. Or hunted down by Captain Dawn.
Don’t think like that, Matt reprimanded himself, it doesn’t help. It’s not accurate.
Matt pushed through the front doors and out into the afternoon breeze, his thoughts swimming. Was this bad? It definitely wasn’t good. He had manoeuvred himself, his friends, close to a very powerful, very dangerous empath. Forget not wanting to prove Jane right – this was about their lives. His life! This girl could kill him, really, truly kill him, with practically no one able to stop her, if she woke up one day and decided to. And would she? What was her mental health like? In his rush to help her it’d never crossed Mat’s mind, but now it was all he could think about. Jane clearly had issues. She was clearly isolated, a loner, very, very angry, and to the best of his knowledge without any supervision, at least that he’d seen...
Matt rounded a corner, bag straps digging into his shoulders. But, fear aside, he tried to think logically, did this really change anything? His reasons for trying to normalise Jane’s presence were still valid – admittedly tipped less towards “protecting her” and more towards “protecting everybody else”. Woe befall the fools who got stupid enough to try and jump her after class. If anything, this made what he’d been doing even more important.
Still, it was hard to shake the smell of burning classmate from his nose.
A sudden stumble jerked Matt back into the real world. Cursing, he bent down to retie his shoelace. Where was he going? Was he walking home? What was the plan? The bus didn’t come for another half an hour. That’s why he’d been inside in the first place.
Matt looked up from his retied shoe and almost yelped with fright.
Jane. There, just down the road, back in her hoodie, a worn backpack over her shoulders. She must have come out from the changing rooms behind the gym. Matt stiffened, frozen for a second, then, when she didn’t turn around or even glance in his direction, realised he was too far away for her to see him. Or maybe she was ignoring him like she always did. Matt let out a small sigh of relief and straightened back up, watching her walk away.
Then his eyes widened and his heart sunk.
Because at that moment, around the same corner, stalked four tall Ugandans.
They came for her sooner than she’d expected. It’d barely been a week, but it didn’t matter. They still came, four of them, tall and black like polished stone, the hate they were carrying warping and distorting their faces into monstrous masks.
They didn’t say a word. They just followed her. Teeth clenched. Breathing. Low and fast and murderous.
They’d started following her after PD. Alone, she’d heard them move behind her, through the back paths and onto the street. Jane didn’t run. She’d meant to lead them somewhere with cameras, but now that wasn’t an option. She didn’t know where she was going and they were gaining fast.
Hard footsteps behind her. An alleyway to her left.
She turned, found a lane, a fence, a red-brick wall. This was it. Her feet mounted the curb, twisted, and put her back to the wall. She turned to face them, and there they were. Huge and looming, the whites of their eyes pearls in the abyss. They’d boxed her in, or so they thought – really, she’d put her back to the wall and had them all within view.
There was a pause – a silence in which the world seemed to hold its breath. She wasn’t afraid, not of them; but maybe of what would come after. Investigations, expulsions, maybe even a trial. The disappointment on her father’s face at another failure, again, so soon. But it was inescapable. These men meant to kill her. Not hurt, not humiliate. Murder. Cold and bloody. She saw it in their eyes – the rage, the grief, the madness. They hated her, and she understood. Their loss, at least, was real.
For once she spoke first. “Stop,” she said. No preamble. “I don’t want to do this.” It was true. Not here, not now, not them. Not like this.
The foremost man snarled, a sound like a blade dragging through timber. “You…”
He took a step forward.
“You… you here… no. Not while I live.” Low and murderous. “Not while I remember.”
“It wasn’t me. I was a child.” The truth, but it didn’t matter. They hated her mark, not her. Who she symbolised. What he’d done. Her chest was a slithering ball of cold, and she had neither rage nor frustration, only grim determination, and the will – the need – to survive.
“You are a monster. You take our homes. Our families.”
“I didn’t do it. I don’t want to fight.”
The four of them said nothing, merely clenched their fists and stepped forward. The girl closed her eyes and drew one final, shallow breath, then leant back and readied herself. She opened her eyes.
“I am legally entitled to take whatever measures I feel are reasonably necessary for the protection of my person,” she articulated, clear and concise. She hoped it would stop them.
But their minds were consumed by Death.
“I don’t care.” The air began to vibrate.
The girl rippled her fingers. “I’m sorry.”
“Alright,” came a voice from their left, “Let’s everyone just hold up a second before we all do something stupid.”
Five heads spun, and five sets of eyes swept over Matt Callaghan as he stood at the mouth of the alleyway, wearing an expression of mild concern. For a moment, all five just stood in stunned silence. Jane’s eyes narrowed slightly, and one of the shorter Ugandans at the back of the group opened his mouth to say something, but stopped halfway and instead glanced at his companions for direction. The rest stared stonily at the new arrival. Matt leant back on his heels and took his hands out of his pockets.
“I’m serious.” He spread his hands wide. His breathing was slow, his shoulders loose, his face casual, though his heart was hammering. “Take it from me. This is a very, very bad idea.”
For a moment, Matt thought they were going to ignore him. The Africans and the empath stood at a stand-off, stuck in place a split-second away from powering up and murdering each other. You could cut the tension with a knife – but Matt didn’t have a knife. All he had were words. Silver words and an outsider’s eyes, ready to bear witness to the ugliness threatening to unfold.
Sometimes that was enough.
After what felt like an eternity, the tallest Ugandan turned slightly towards him. “You.”
“I know you.”
“I know you do.”
“You sit with her.” He jabbed a finger at Jane and his face clenched into an expression of pure hatred.
Matt tried to appear unfazed. He’d known that hurdle was coming. “Well, I like to think she sits with me,” he replied, “It’s my table.” Then before they could think, he diverted: “But you know what else I do?”
A pause. A glance between them. “You are the fortune teller,” the taller one said in low words.
“A-plus. Got it in one. Matt Callaghan, Clairvoyant. You know me. And I know you too.” Matt stepped forward. “You’re Kato. From over in Dovington Heights? My friend, Taylor – you know, buzzcut, never shuts it – says you shoot three-pointers better than anyone in the district.”
The man’s face remained blank, so Matt kept going.
“I know all of you, actually. You’re Solomon,” he said, pointing at the guy behind him, “You took Katie Motro to homecoming last year, but then you never called afterwards. Don’t know why man, she was crushing on you hard. Still is, probably.” Solomon blinked.
“And you, big tall guy in the black hoodie, your name’s Otim. Your little sister Maryam comes to see me now and again. Talks about you all the time. How’s her anorexia going?” He looked pointedly at Otim for a reply, who shuffled, uncomfortable at being put on the spot, at having to suddenly think for himself. That was the whole point. Psychology 101 – a mob is comprised of people. Remind the people they’re individuals, snap them away from whatever they’re swept up in, and they start thinking about their actions. The momentum fades, and the mob dissolves.
“She… she is healthier now. Like you told her she would be.”
“Healthier and happier I’d think, now that she’s ditched that horrible group of girls.”
“Yes.” An awkward silence drifted out between them. To his right, Matt saw Jane’s eyes darting from one to the other. They were no longer looking at her but gazing at the ground. He pressed on.
“And that leaves you don’t it? Lucky last, good old Hassan. Hassan the man! You’re in my Geo class! Remember when Brodie showed up so high to that oral presentation thing that he tried to tell Ms Peterson there was no such place as Finland?”
Hassan’s lips opened into a reluctant smile. “I… that was… yes. It was funny.”
“Exactly! We way back, don’t we? We’re old friends. So you know I’m not messing around when I say, man, you really don’t want to do this.”
The tension, the murderous intent, crept back into the alleyway. Kato’s face darkened and four sets of eyes swung from Matt to Jane. But Matt had anticipated this. He shrugged and spread his hands wide.
“Hey, look, don’t get me wrong,” he said, drawing their attention back to him, “It’s your lives, do what you want. Doesn’t affect me. But as a clairvoyant, you know, what I have to do – what is my destiny, my duty, right now – is to warn you, promise you, that attacking Jane here-” he used her name, trying to humanise her, “-leads to a very negative future for everyone.” He paused, glancing discretely across their assembled faces, scanning desperately for any sign of his warning taking root. “Simple as that. That is super clear to me right now.” He paused again. “Attacking her would be a huge mistake.”
For a second they all just stared – mainly at him, a little at her. There were looks of trepidation, reluctance, a fist uncurling ever so slightly. The words burrowing in, giving pause. Matt tried to appear unconcerned.
“That’s it,” he shrugged, “That’s all I’ve got to say.”
For a while, nobody moved except Matt, who bounced on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets – half to appear relaxed, half to hide his shaking.
Finally, Kato spoke.
“You sit with her.” It was an accusation, not a question.
“Of course I do,” Matt replied. He added in a small edge of impatience to make it sound like this was obvious. “Principal Rance told me to. I’m a clairvoyant, he wanted me to keep an eye on her. If I stay nearby, then I can see her future and know if she’s up to something.”
Still rooted to the same spot, Jane’s head snapped around to look at him. Matt didn’t meet her eyes, but could almost hear the gears turning in her head. Keep your stupid mouth shut, he mentally urged her, I am so close to getting you out of this, don’t you dare say a goddamn word. But of course, she couldn’t hear him.
Convoluted as it was, his explanation nevertheless made Kato hesitate. “She is an empath…” he said slowly, but the conviction was draining from his voice, “She… needs to-”
“Hey man, look,” Matt said, trying to sound sympathetic, “I’m with you. I hate empaths. If it was up to me, I’d say burn the witch. But I gotta calls it like I sees it – and this girl is bad news. Anybody who tries to hurt her is in for a world of pain, I promise. I’m just looking out for you.”
There was a moment’s silence while the four Ugandans exchanged uneasy looks. They glanced at Jane, whose combat-ready stance and general twitchiness was giving off the impression of a rabid fox stuck in a trap, then back at each other.
“Hasa diga eebowai,” muttered Kato. Matt had no idea what that meant but it sounded concessional. The tall man turned and gestured to his companions. “Come. It is not meant to be.” There was a general murmuring of consent, and the four of them started drifting back up towards the main street. “Sorry,” Matt said apologetically as they passed. Hassan just shook his head as if to say ‘It’s not your fault’ and Solomon clasped him on the shoulder. “Watch her,” he said. Matt nodded.
His eyes glued to their backs, Matt watched the four figures trudge slowly around the corner. Then finally, after what felt like hours had passed and he was sure they were truly gone, he let out a heavy sigh. Matt pulled his trembling hands out of his pockets and ran them shakily through his hair. He turned to Jane, who was still standing there, stony-faced and silent.
“Yes,” she said simply.
There was a brief pause. Then: “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to say it so pained.”
“I’m not, I… I mean it.” She breathed out and her shoulder slumped. “I didn’t want to fight them.”
Matt took a deep breath, still shaking a bit. “Because they’re African?”
“Yeah.” Jane leant back on the red-brick wall, then slid slowly down until she was sitting on the cold concrete sidewalk, knees to her chest. “Is that wrong?”
“No.” There was a moment of awkwardness. Matt’s hands found their way back into his pockets.
Eventually the girl sighed, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. Any trace of the anger she’d been harbouring all week had disappeared.
“I didn’t expect it so soon,” she mumbled, not looking at him, “Normally it takes a few months for people to get the courage to…” Her voice trailed off.
Matt grimaced. “This isn’t the first… well no, I guess not,” he finished, seeing the look on the girl’s face. He shifted forward. “That must suck.”
Jane shrugged, head on her knees, looking off into nothing. “You get used to it.”
A small gust whistled down the alleyway. Jane let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to transfer again.”
“Why would you have to transfer?”
“Soon as the school finds out I was in a fight, I’ll have to move.”
“Well there wasn’t technically a fight,” said Matt. He leant into the wall, looking down. “And I don’t think the school will find out.”
Jane glanced up at him. “Why?”
Matt shook his head. “Those guys won’t tell. They don’t really seem to trust authority, generally. Make of it what you will. But I can’t see this coming back to bite you.”
They both stared off into space.
“What’s it like?” Jane asked after a while, “Seeing the future?”
Matt scuffed his feet absentmindedly on the concrete. “I’m surprised you haven’t taken my powers already and found out.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” the girl replied coldly. “That’s not my type.”
“Your type of what?”
“There’re different types?”
“Obviously.” She looked at him with disdain. “I’m touch based. Empathic mimics are the ones who can copy you just by being in the same room.”
Matt glanced around uneasily, unsure of how to broach his next question. “What was… ah… you know…”
“Blood-based,” Jane answered curtly. The irritation on her face told him she’d known exactly what he’d been about to ask. “How does everyone not know that?”
“I think they do,” Matt admitted. Now that she mentioned it, it sounded familiar. “Guess most people get too worked up to care about the details.”
“It’s not a detail,” she snapped, “It’s key. If he hadn’t been blood-based he would never have been able to collect that many powers.”
Matt blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“What type you are decides how many powers you can have,” replied Jane, impatient, “Empathic mimics can only hold one. Touch-based can hold two to five.”
“How many can you hold?” interjected Matt.
“Four,” Jane answered, not slowing down or looking up. “Blood-based are unlimited. And once they absorb enough DNA the power’s locked in for life.” She seemed annoyed at having to explain all this, but not enough to be able to stop herself.
“Cool. Alright. There you go. Learn something every day.” Matt paused. “So you absorb by touch?”
“I just said that.”
“So if you, like, brush my pinkie, you could-”
“I have to get a good grip,” she snapped, increasingly annoyed, “Firm, sustained contact.”
“Alright,” Matt said, with only a hint of defensiveness, “You ever think of, you know, telling people that? Might make them a bit less reluctant to come near you?”
“Oh yeah,” Jane replied sarcastically, “Then they can go from treating me like a plague zombie to treating me like a leper.”
“Shut up.” The sudden spark of irritation seemed to reignite the anger in her voice. “Why do you care anyway?” Her head snapped round to look at him, eyes narrow and accusing as if she was only now truly registering his presence, standing idly two feet away as she sat on the curb. “Why are you even here?”
“They were going to jump you. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Jane snorted. “That’s right. I forgot, you can see the future. Well, you were right. I would’ve killed them.” There was a pause, and an edge of bitter misery crept into her words. “They were going to try and kill me, and I would’ve had to kill them.”
“Must be good, knowing.”
“Well…” Matt shifted, a little uneasy. “Truth be told, I didn’t know-know. Like clairvoyant know. Just between you and me.”
Jane eyed him suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“I had sixth free. I saw you in PD.”
“Oh. That.” Despite her glumness and irritation, Matt thought he saw a flash of pride streak across Jane’s face.
“Yeah. So a little less clairvoyance and more first-hand knowledge.” He paused. “How’d you get so good?”
Jane shrugged, indifferent. “Practice.”
“No, but seriously.”
“But nothing. I practice. Every day. Most people don’t. Most people think ‘oh, I’ve got these powers, I’m set’. Think they’re a natural goddamn artist because they inherited a paint brush. So they never learn how to use them properly. Never put in the time.” She sniffed and spat. “Sweat more in training, bleed less in battle.”
“I guess. And I guess you need to be able to defend yourself.”
“It’s not for self-defence.”
Matt looked at her, confused. “It’s not?”
Jane’s eyes wandered up towards the darkening sky. “You wouldn’t understand.”
The girl contemplated for a moment. Then: “I want to be the best.”
“The best… at fighting?”
“Yes,” Jane replied simply.
Matt made a face. “Um… why?”
She turned away. “Because I’m good at it.”
“My brother’s good at making my little sister cry, I wouldn’t suggest he do it professionally.”
“I told you, you wouldn’t understand. The world doesn’t hate you for being born.”
“True. They never made me get a big ‘C’ tattooed on my cheek. What?” he added when she glared at him.
“No,” she snarled, “Exactly. They didn’t.”
Her aggression was coming back, but Matt was finding it less intimidating. “Did it hurt?”
“Your face. Did it hurt?”
“No, you-” she threw in a few choice swear words “-idiot, it was one of those completely painless face tattoos that feels like a warm towel when it’s carved into your flesh when you’re eleven.”
“Jeez, how did your parents take it?”
Jane looked off into the distance, still and angry. “I don’t know. My Dad didn’t say anything. He didn’t even come when they took me.”
“What about your Mom?”
“My Mom’s dead,” she snapped. Matt grimaced and ran his hand over the back of his head.
“Why? You didn’t kill her,” she retorted, her voice cold.
Matt didn’t know how to respond to that.
They lapsed into strained silence; Jane kneading dirt between her fingers, glowering at nothing, Matt just standing, feeling his feet getting sore.
“Come on,” he said eventually, shooting a glance up the alleyway then back at the girl, “We should probably get going. I’ve got to… you know… home…” He looked down at Jane, still sitting on the ground with her arms around her knees. Without thinking, out of reflex, instinctual politeness, he held out a hand to help her up – and without thinking, Jane grasped it.
And for a fraction of second, their bare hands touched.
It was as if time had suddenly stopped. Slowly, in the space of a second, Matt saw a shadow pass over Jane’s face, saw her brow furrow, puzzled, and felt his own do the same in reply. Why was she looking like that? Was there a problem? Matt didn’t understand – but as he watched, Jane’s eyes fell, tracing down to his arm, to his hand, her hand, their hands, clasped together, skin touching. Watched as she looked back up at him, her eyes widening, mangled horror spreading across her face. He felt her arm clench, her grip tighten.
And in an instant, Matt realised his mistake. An instant too late, the penny dropped and his brain woke up, warning, screaming at him not to touch her, to pull away-
But it was too late.
Jane the touch-based empath gripped Matt Callaghan’s human hand and looked at him for the first time with real, genuine fear, and whispered:
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).