Matt didn’t know if it was that they’d shared each other’s secrets or the simple fact that the (figurative) ice between them was broken, but from that point on Jane the empath became considerably easier to be around. She talked, made eye contact and occasionally even joked – at first only with him but as the weeks progressed eventually with Taylor and Marcus and anyone else around them. She even volunteered an answer to a question in history one morning – albeit, an answer which was horribly wrong, but it was a step in the right direction.
“I guess ranks don’t mean much if you’re stupid, huh?” Matt jabbed after class.
“Screw you, you’re short,” Jane replied, somewhat less eloquent but undeniably an inch or two taller.
“Mean,” Matt muttered when she was out of earshot.
Though Jane did have some serious gaps in her education, this soon faded into irrelevance as word of her combat prowess soon spread throughout the school. Initially, the news that the empath was some sort of power-wielding prodigy only further inflamed people’s mistrust, but eventually, and especially after Matt suggested she hang back after PD and offer pointers to people who were themselves struggling, Jane’s fearsome ability and consistent, uneventful presence earned her a begrudging kind of respect. Matt’s friends especially were particularly keen – once they’d overcome their initial phobia – to indulge their curiosities.
“So, like, if you take my power,” Brodie asked one lunch time, his open mouth still filled with chicken, “What happens to me?”
“Nothing,” replied Jane.
“But, like, you’ve taken my power. What do I do? I don’t have a power anymore.”
“Copy. I copy powers.” She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “You’ve still got your power, nobody can take it from you.”
“Except a neutraliser,” interjected Taylor, who was wearing a cap indoors.
“Temporarily. If you’re nearby.”
“True, true,” Taylor replied. Then he frowned. “If an empath copies a neutraliser, do the rest of their powers not work?”
Jane looked back at him apathetically. “If you’re holding an eraser, does that stop you using a pencil?” She left Taylor to ponder that one.
As Jane grew steadily more tolerated, to the point where a few girls apparently even started saying the occasional hello to her when passing in the corridor (not encouraged, admittedly, by Jane’s narrow-eyed suspicion of anything vaguely resembling normal human interaction), Matt’s PD sessions grew steadily more full. At first, he had experienced a drop-off in clientele – perhaps afraid he’d caught empath cooties – but after the shock of Jane’s arrival wore off people started visiting his little clairvoyant classroom in droves. Matt’s actions had, annoyingly, drawn attention to himself and his ‘gift’ – though it wasn’t all bad. Maryam, Otim’s sister, dropped off a box of chocolates with an expression of wordless thanks the week after her brother’s averted confrontation with Jane (which Matt shared with an ecstatic Sarah and thoroughly ungrateful Jonas), and to his surprise, Matt soon discovered that the increase in people coming to him as a clairvoyant was actually enhancing his clairvoyant reputation.
“It’s so stupid,” he muttered to Jane one morning when they’d both arrived early, alone at their table and well out of anybody’s earshot, “The more people do a thing, the more people assume the thing must be good. Otherwise why would so many people do it? So then they do it and people see them doing it and…”
“Round and round and round,” agreed Jane, not looking up from her English assignment.
“This is why Furbies got popular, I tell you,” Matt said, shaking his head, “Lemmings off a goddamn cliff.”
“Uh-huh,” Jane replied, still not looking up or caring.
The days were getting shorter and colder. It rarely snowed around these parts but the air acquired a definite bite to it that let you know in no uncertain terms that something was freezing somewhere. Ugg boots emerged from hibernation, the trees started losing their leaves and the floramancers began walking around with that mopey expression they got whenever the plants were sad. Mutterings began to circulate about homecoming, graduation and college applications – finals were still a long way off but the distance was narrowing rapidly. Some were handling the pressure better than others: Taylor was constantly in the middle of various scholarship applications, Marcus was occasionally studying, and Brodie had cut down being high to solely on weekends. Some were handling it worse: Kendra Hatherall had a panic attack during a morning quiz and accidentally turned her desk to liquid, while Mitch Green, whose parents were obviously giving him too much allowance, was caught paying a forty-two-year-old shapeshifter to sit his English mid-sem.
“Like everyone wasn’t going to notice,” muttered Carlos as school security escorted the red-faced cheater off school grounds.
“You can always tell,” Matt agreed, shaking his head as the speckled tubby man was led past, “I mean who calls his classmates ‘fellow kids’?”
Personally, Matt wasn’t too worried about the future. For one thing, he didn’t have to decide whether to pursue a power-requisite or standard career path; he’d considered accounting, or law, if his grades were good enough, maybe even history, where the focus on looking back would hopefully make people less interested in his “ability” to look forward. A job with the tax office, perhaps, something boring and bureaucratic – anything really where he could keep his head down and beaver away undetected.
Jane took issue with this idea.
“So essentially you’re going to waste your life?” she asked contemptuously when the topic arose.
“I would call it more work to live,” he replied, not taking any offence at her tone – he’d long since learnt that Jane’s seeming lack of courtesy didn’t actually mean any disrespect, “But yes, if by ‘waste my life’ you mean be a productive member of society who spends his abundant free time doing what he enjoys with his friends and family over and over for decades and decades until he dies happy loved and content, then yeah, I guess I just want to waste my life.”
Jane scrunched up her face. “You don’t want to… I don’t know, make a mark? Do something meaningful, change the world?”
“The world seems to get along fine without me,” he shrugged.
Jane opened her mouth to argue, but at that moment Pat dropped down into the seat opposite her.
“How do you change between powers?” he asked, without any preamble at all.
“Why?” she grumbled. Pat grinned.
“Eva Weiss wants to know.”
“That Swiss girl Junior?” asked Matt, two pieces of melon on the end of his fork, “The one with the huge, uh, ahem, hands?” He quickly caught himself in consideration of present company.
“It’s just a mental thing,” answered Jane, oblivious to his almost-slip, “Like I’m rolling a coin between my fingers.”
“Cool, cool,” replied Pat, rocking forward and nodding and undeterred by the semi-awkward silence that followed. “And you have three powers, right?”
“But you can have four.”
“Fire, ice and thunder.”
“Yes. I used to have telepathy. I got rid of it.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Matt, looking at her mildly surprised. The girl nodded stiffly.
“Why’d you get rid of it?” Pat pressed.
“I didn’t want it anymore,” she replied, irritation creeping into her voice.
“How’d you get rid of it?”
“What is this, twenty goddamn questions?!” Jane snapped. Pat flinched and leant back across the table. Jane pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.
“Sorry, sorry.” She looked at him and attempted something that might have been meant to be a smile, but which came across more as a pained grimace. “Any power I don’t want I can just let go. You don’t have to do anything special, you just kind of…” she hesitated, “…you know when you’ve been wearing shoes for a while and you sort of don’t think about it, but then you get home and you take them off and suddenly you realise there was something on your feet?” She glanced at Pat to see if he understood.
“Kind of? So it’s like taking off a shoe?”
“Kind of. Not really. It feels like shedding a skin you didn’t know you had. Except I don’t know what shedding your skin feels like so I have no idea.”
Pat nodded, satisfied though perhaps not comprehending. “That’ll do. Thanks!” He left the table and ran off as quickly as he came.
“Bless his little heart,” Matt said as he watched him go, “Going after girls. Trying to be cool.” He glanced at Jane. “Being friends with the big scary empath.”
“I don’t have any friends,” Jane muttered into her textbook.
“Uh-huh. How’d you go with the Chem equations?”
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).