I fell in love with both stories for their impressive tackling of some very large contemporary issues – homelessness, poverty, public fear and the need for compassion and generosity and imagination. I found both narrative voices gripping, and chose the winner for the sumptuous prose, and the runner-up for the terse rhythm.
—Fiona Cheong, contest judge
I went to his parents’ house to find out who he is. Pictures of him smiled at me from the walls. Pictures of him in his team jerseys, his prom suit, his graduation cap. He wasn’t much older than these pictures when he died. He was a good kid. A poor way to sum up a life half lived.
He seemed to remember some of them. They were faded memories, distant in the corner of my mind.
“That’s what I looked like,” he whispered to me. “That’s who I was.”
But he doesn’t remember all of it. He doesn’t have the full picture anymore. Just bits and pieces of his old memories.
It didn’t take much to explain to his parents who I was. My name was in all of the police reports surrounding his death. I was the primary witness in a crime that everyone wished would just go away. They brought me in and set a glass of water in front of me. I let it sit as the sweat from the glass soaked the coaster.
Neither of his parents was a telepath, so they didn’t know not to ask the next question. How I hated knowing that it was coming, but I let them ask it because they needed to.
“How did he die?” his mother asked. “Was he in much pain?”
I muttered something about thinking of them at the end. It was true, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t tell them the truth. That he died scared and alone. That he didn’t need to die at all. But he whispered things in my ear that would soothe them and let them find some sort of peace. His father left the room so that I wouldn’t see his tears. I saw them anyway.
Stories like Terrence’s don’t start with once upon a time. And they don’t end with happily ever after. They start and they end with fear. Fear on both sides. Fear of the other. Fear of what we don’t comprehend. Fear that our place in the universe might be shaken. Fear of the telepath. The mind reader. The silent threat that lives within the minds of our fellow man.
Terrence didn’t have to do anything to incite that fear. No telepath ever did. He just had to exist. Where there was a lack of other things to fear, narrow minds filled in the rest. And there are always narrow minds nearby.
I don’t even know where he was going. He doesn’t remember, either. Doesn’t have that piece of himself anymore. The first time I laid eyes on him it was almost too late.
It was a sunny day and I was on my way to meet some friends downtown for lunch. Those details don’t matter, but I always include them when I tell the story. I include them because it was a mundane day until I saw him. For some reason, that matters to me. It was just an ordinary day.
Something called my attention to him. Some noise or image at the corner of my mind. He hadn’t called to me, not deliberately. But some part of him touched me. Just a tickle at the back of my head.
He was cornered outside of a shop across the street from me. It was the kind of place that had a recessed doorway big enough for three or four people to surround someone. The other men were just punks. Losers out to make trouble. Their strength was in numbers and their numbers made them bold. Words turned to shoving. Shoving turned to punching and kicking. And the shop’s doors were closed to Terrence.
It was none of my business. I don’t know why I even stopped. Every part of my training by society said not to get involved. Put your head down. Keep walking. Don’t ask questions. But I stopped anyway. Maybe it was some primal instinct, a recognition that he was someone like me. Maybe it was just the reminder that this could be me at any time. But I couldn’t turn away from him. I couldn’t let whatever was going to happen happen without a witness.
Telepathy is easy. You just split your mind into a thousand pieces and try to keep the autonomous parts of it with your own body. Then you send the other parts roving. Send them off to talk to other minds and hope they come home. It just takes practice and the right set of genetics. I was in his head before I realized that I was going to do it.
“Let me help you,” I whispered to him. I presented a simple plan, laid it out in his mind. The two of us could fight them off. The two of us and they would flee, I thought. Change the numbers and we could take away their advantage. I was on my way to rescue him. A dark avenging angel.
“No.” It wasn’t a whisper. It reverberated through my head with the force of command and I froze with my foot off the curb. His thought wouldn’t let me move any further.
“They’re going to kill you,” I sent.
He cried out in pain from across the street as the violence escalated. We’d, both of us, seen similar stories on the news. Heard about them from other people. We both knew how this ended.
“I know,” he told me. He didn’t shout it. He sent it to me quietly, calmly, but his true feelings stowed away on the message. They pierced my mind. A white hot bolt of emotion that streaked across my vision.
It felt like I’d brought the part that controls my heart along with me. Was that the feeling of his heart pounding in his ears? Was he short of breath or was I? I panicked and pulled back to be sure I was still alive. His fear swamped my logical mind until I couldn’t think for myself. Everything was instinct for a moment.
I wish that I could say I waited until I was ready before going back into his mind, but there never is such a thing as ready to face that kind of horror. I went back into his mind because I couldn’t let him die alone. Someone should be there to witness his final moments.
I formed a new piece of my mind, taking extra care that I didn’t split off anything vital this time. I wrapped it up with all of the love and compassion I had within me and I sent it to him.
“Let me help you,” it said.
“They’ll kill you, too, if you try,” came the reply.
It only took a moment. A conversation had between two punches. And I knew that I wouldn’t cross the street to him. I would always say that his words wouldn’t let me, but neither would my own cowardice.
I soothed his mother with the belief that he didn’t die alone, but he did in every sense of the word that matters.
I saw Death through his eyes and my mind recoiled to the safety of my own body, taking every part of me back with it. Some things are not meant to be seen. Some minds are not meant to be touched. And Death was ugly. I felt the stink of him on my own mind. I couldn’t wash it clean. I never will. My brain built a wall around the feeling of it to isolate me. To keep me safe.
I watched him die through my own eyes instead of his, safe behind the wall. And though I was a witness to the crime, I was barely a witness to his death.
He looked at me in those final moments, as the sirens sounded much too far off to be useful. If he sent me any final messages they rebounded off the wall in my mind. A gun was produced, a shot fired, and Terrence’s life ended. I never knew which of the men fired the shot. He doesn’t know, either. He closed his eyes and maybe I did too.
His parents saw me off after we’d found what little comfort we could from each other. Their son was dead. Nothing that I could say would give them comfort for long.
I don’t tell her that her son isn’t alone anymore. A piece of him anyway. One of hundreds of the people like me that I carry in my mind. People I’ve met. People I’ve passed secrets with. And people I’ve seen killed. So many of our people that I’ve seen killed. His voice whispers along with the rest. And their whispers are angry.