“Nothing. There’s nothing there.”
Matt couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. He was paralysed, overcome with mortal panic. Undo. Undo undo undo. Undo the last ten seconds, take it back, don’t-
But they were touching. Their hands still together, Jane still staring at him, wide-eyed.
“I can’t feel your power…” she murmured.
There was a second’s stunned silence. Then, finally, Matt’s brain snapped into gear and he tried to pull away – but the instant he did Jane’s look of shock twisted into anger, and her hand tightened like a vice.
“Ow!” Matt exclaimed, but the empath’s grip was merciless. She raised her free hand beside her head and arcs of blue-white lightning crackled across her palm.
“What are you?” she demanded. Matt winced at the smell of cooking ozone, recoiling, trying to pull away.
“What do you mean?” he cried, “Let me go!” But his feigned ignorance was fooling no one. Jane’s face darkened.
“Liar,” she snarled, and her hand twisted his wrist, hard, sending pain shooting up his arm and making Matt yelp.
“Ow ow ow,” he stammered, trying to turn away, but it was useless. The empath was stronger than him by far, and simply held on so that she was practically twisting his arm behind his back.
“What are you?” she repeated, and this time her voice held threats of violence.
Matt still didn’t give in. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he cried, struggling the other way – but it was useless, she had him in a lock. “You’re insane!”
“Tell me what you are,” Jane demanded, bringing her crackling palm so close to his head he could smell the tips of his hair burning, “Or I’ll kill you, right here, right now.”
That was an escalation. “Ok, ok!” Matt conceded. He held up his other hand. “You win, you win, just let me go!” The girl scowled at him, distrustful, and Matt did his best to put on a supplicating face. Reluctantly, her grip loosened and Matt’s arm slipped free.
“Son-of-a-freaking… ow,” Matt muttered, pulling back. He rubbed his wrist ruefully, turning away to nurse his wounded pride, but at the same time glancing discretely at Jane, wondering if he could make a run for it. Apparently though, this plan was obvious on his face. Jane’s eyes narrowed, there was a blast of hissing cold, and suddenly Matt’s feet were iced to the road.
“Oh come on,” he complained.
“Talk,” growled Jane, folding her arms and curling lightning threateningly between her fingers.
“I don’t…” Matt stammered, looking up at her with a vain, pleading shrug, “About what?! What do you want from me?” With escape no longer an option, Matt switched roles to terrified civilian. If he could just feign fear and ignorance convincingly enough, maybe-
“Talk!” Jane repeated, louder and more dangerously.
“I don’t know, I honestly don’t, please,” he stalled, trying to buy time – desperate, precious seconds – for someone else to come along, to somehow come up with a plausible lie. “I’m sorry I don’t understand, I’ve never been that bright, ever since I was a little kid you know when teachers would tell me stuff I’d never get the full meaning, I think I’m on the spectrum somewhere I mean I’ve never been tested but-”
“Stop,” snarled Jane, “Stalling. Why can’t I feel your power?”
“I don’t know,” begged Matt, grasping at straws, “I’m not using it right now, maybe you-”
Jane eyes narrowed, and before Matt could react she’d crossed the space between them. There was a hand on his wrist and another on his throat and suddenly he was being lifted, choking and squirming, two inches into the air. Matt struggled, slapping lamely at Jane’s shoulders with his free hand, trying to break free. The empath was unmoved.
“You’re a good liar,” she stated coldly, looking up at him, her fingers crushing into his neck, “But I know what I feel.” She paused, as Matt’s struggles grew ever feebler and more frantic. “I can kill you in a heartbeat.”
“You kill me…” gurgled Matt, choking the words out between gasping breaths, “You’ll… go to jail… get the chair…”
“I’ll tell them what I felt.”
“Doesn’t matter…” Matt wheezed, spots dancing before his eyes, “Murder a… model student… no proof… history… think they’ll believe… you…”
Jane’s face hardened. She stared Matt in his watering eyes, her expression inscrutable. Then suddenly, she let go and stepped back. Matt fell to all fours, gasping.
“Ow…” he croaked, a weak, hoarse whisper. The world spun. His fingers massaged his aching throat.
“Fine,” said Jane. Her voice echoed down over him, imperious and indifferent to his suffering. “Then I’ll just turn you in. I’m sure the Department of Powers Regulation would be interested to hear about this.”
“No,” pleaded Matt, his voice still dry and cracked, “Please. Don’t do that.” He put one foot forward, then stopped, his head woozy. He looked up at Jane, panting. “Please.”
“Because… just don’t,” he begged her, still too light-headed to come up with some convincing way out. He leant back, blinking wide, trying to clear his mind. Jane towered over him, her arms crossed, fingers tapping – an immovable, impatient object.
“Are you an empath?” she asked bluntly.
“What?” Matt recoiled as if stung.
“It’d make sense. Maybe it’s not nothing I’m feeling, just more of me.”
“I’m not an empath.”
“Then I’m sure you’d be happy to get tested.”
“God, no, I- look, here.” Matt held out his hand. Of course now he realised the full extent of what that would entail, now that it was monumentally too late. Jane hesitated – maybe a little put off by the gesture – but after a second or two grasped his hand and pulled Matt to his feet.
“Ugh,” she shuddered, though she maintained the contact, “So weird.”
“There’s no empathy,” he insisted.
Jane’s brow furrowed. Without waiting for permission she moved her hand along, squeezing the bare flesh of his arms then neck then cheeks.
“Yes, that’s my face, thank you,” said Matt with only a touch of impatience.
“You’re like a child,” said Jane, ignoring his discomfort, “All I can feel is skin.”
“Do you touch many children?” remarked Matt. She glared at him, but gradually, the glare faded. She dropped her hand.
“I can’t feel anything,” she murmured. For a moment they both just stood there as the girl stared off into nothingness, her eyes unfocused. Then slowly she looked up, a curious expression dawning across her face – as if she was truly seeing him for the first time.
“If you have a power…” she began, and Matt felt a thrill of horror unfurl inside him as she set the words carefully down, laying out a chain of thought he could already see the end of, “…I’d feel it. But I can’t… I feel nothing. Because maybe there is nothing… because maybe… maybe you don’t…”
Turned and ran as fast as he could, with only a fleeting backwards glance. There was no hiss of ice, no crack of lightning, no footsteps in pursuit. Jane just stood there, silent, alone in the alley, watching him go. But Matt didn’t stop. He kept running, running until his legs burned and his lungs screamed, until he was home, alone, with the door locked behind him.
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).