What had he done?!
Matt Callaghan stared at himself in the bathroom mirror and gripped the sides of the sink so hard he thought it was going to snap. Idiot. Idiot idiot idiot, stupid freaking idiot! She knew. She knew she knew she knew. Oh God. What had he done?
He dipped his shaking hands in the cold, freezing water and splashed it across his face. All his training. All his 6am rises, all that effort, and he throws it out the window with two seconds of chivalry on a psychotic girl. What was wrong with him?! Was he insane?! Did he want to be carted off, harvested and dissected, locked up in some government facility while scientists poked and prodded at his abnormal DNA?!
And of all the people. Oh God, of all the billions of people, he’d picked a vindictive, aggressive, emotionally unstable empath who he knew only slightly better than Timmy’s grandma’s dog. A week! He’d known this girl for a week!
Oh God. He needed to run, needed to pack a bag right now, get on the first bus out of town and go start a life somewhere nobody knew his name. Alaska. Alaska or Denmark or the United Abrahamic States, somewhere nobody in their right mind would look for him. He glanced at the back of the bathroom doors, the blue fluffy towels hanging from their pegs. Any minute, any second now, a heavy steel-capped boot would kick down that door and they’d drag him into the back of an unmarked van. They’d take him, his computer, his family-
His family. He’d put them in danger too, everyone, all his powered relatives. An easy case study, compare and contrast. Mom, Dad. Jonas. Sarah. No. No no no no.
He ran his sopping, trembling hands through his hair. He had to tell them, had to warn them, then they could flee together, as a family…
Except, maybe not. Except maybe – Matt’s hands re-gripped the sink and he stared back into his reflection, breathing slower, forcing himself to think. Maybe… maybe he’d actually messed up less than he thought.
Not having a power… not having a power was unbelievable. Impossible, like saying someone didn’t have organs, or bodyweight. Most people couldn’t sense abilities. Most people would think it was a joke, an insult, that Jane was lying and- and she was an empath. People hated empaths, nobody trusted them. Who was going to believe her when she started spouting such obvious lies?
Matt blinked rapidly, trying to steady his breathing. Yeah. Yeah. It was Jane’s word against his. Jane, empath, notorious troublemaker (presumably, given how many schools it sounded like she’d been kicked out of), reclusive and with a documented irrational dislike of his company, versus him, normal, model student, stable family member and established clairvoyant. Yeah. Yeah. There was no way anyone would believe such an outlandish claim coming from the likes of her – unless… unless he did something stupid-
Like running away to Alaska.
He let go of the basin. He had to stay calm, think this through, not do anything dumb. At worst he’d get a few questions, which he could play off as Jane trying to cause trouble. Yeah, he could spin that. That was easier to believe than the ridiculous notion of him, a fully functional eighteen‑year‑old, not having any sort of superpower. This was America, he reassured himself, he was American. They didn’t just take people into custody, destroy their lives, on the grounds of a single wild accusation. There were questions and warrants and lawyers, bureaucracy, accountability, rules, not some North Korean nonsense where you misspoke and ended up in a gulag. Right? Right?! If worst came to worst, absolute worst, a psychic from the DPR would probe around his mind, and he could handle that. He could control his thoughts, show them only what he wanted them to see.
Yes. This was survivable. Nobody would believe Jane. Nobody would come looking, and if they did they’d find him open-mouthed and innocent-eyed. The unsuspecting victim of some sociopath’s pranks.
Ok. He straightened up. He could do this. Just pretend like nothing ever happened. He couldn’t panic. He mustn’t panic. Matt took a deep shuddering breath and buried his face in his hands.
Matt Callaghan did not sleep well that night. Though he knew his decision not to run was the right one – Matt reassured himself of that over and over again – it didn’t seem to stop the walls of his bedroom from closing in around him, the whispering sensation of impending doom lingering through the darkness. Every shadow against his window was a government van, every creak of the walls a SWAT team. Matt tried practising his mental techniques until the feeling of being inside his own head became too much and he had to stop. He tried distracting himself with video games, playing “Rome: Total War” for hours in the dark – but by 3am his eyes hurt and all his non-Italian Peninsula settlements were plagued by corruption, so that, too, had to stop.
He awoke Saturday morning to find the house deserted – Jonas had a soccer match and Sarah had athletics, he remembered as he blearily pulled open the fridge door to get milk. He sat alone at the kitchen table eating Frosty Flakes, secretly thankful for the lack of company.
Alone, it didn’t take long before Matt was pacing between the TV, the kitchen and his bedroom, too on edge to rest and too distracted to do anything useful. He watched 10 minutes of the animated Legion of Heroes fighting Ana Bloodbane, with Captain Dawn and his power of limitless energy flying around lifting heavy things and blasting golden light. He went upstairs and tried in vain to study, came downstairs and toasted a pop-tart, flopped back onto the couch and ended up spending two hours half-watching a Discovery Channel documentary about the plight of the few remaining rhinos. Rhinos. A rare and endangered species hunted just because some people wanted something they were born with. Matt drummed his fingers along the arm of the couch as David Attenborough explain the devastating impacts of poaching. They didn’t deserve this, he was saying. Why couldn’t they just be left alone?
Matt could sympathise.
Matt’s family came home around midday, and before too long the eldest Callaghan found himself saddled with a variety of chores, which he normally might have resented but in the circumstances didn’t mind, the numbing, routine housework almost calming in its mindlessness. Eventually, as the weekend wore on the panic of the situation softened somewhat and Matt’s years of training reasserted itself, corralling his frazzled mental state. The central root of stress, he’d once read, was uncertainty – the inability to choose between fight or flight. Matt was uncertain of what was going to happen, what Jane was going to do, but that was out of his hands. This stress wasn’t useful, he told himself, and worrying about things beyond your control achieved nothing except fraying your mental edges. This was life – you held the cards you were dealt and all you could do was play.
So Matt forced himself to let go. He took a couple of long showers and longer walks. He messaged his friends and talked with his family. He cordoned off all thoughts of empaths and vivisection and suppressed the urge to run or panic or Google something incriminating. He was the master of his own mind. So many people had trouble with that concept but for Matt Callaghan, who stood in front of a mirror practising mental control for an hour and twenty minutes every day, it was reality. He controlled his thoughts, not the other way around. And he was making a conscious choice to let this go.
And funnily enough, by the time Matt fell asleep on Sunday night, he almost felt like it was gone.
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).