Aidan makes her way down the wood and stone steps wishing Celia wasn’t the one running late today. Mr. Morgan reserved the outdoor classroom for today’s class. It is supposed to be a break from routine, a break that he said would allow thoughts to roam free rather than circle the same four walls of the room inside the school.
No one else is on the wood and stone stairway headed down into the woods next to the school. For a girl trying to avoid the man, she now wonders how the hell she is the first to make it to class today. Halfway down, she hears his voice. She can’t see beyond the curve ahead.
He must be talking on his cell. She makes out only his side of the conversation.
“What is she doing here?”
“That’s too soon.”
Aidan takes a few steps.
“She’s not ready.”
She moves a branch out of her way.
The outdoor classroom looks more like an old place of worship. Trees filled with Spanish moss circle wooden benches. A podium stands on a raised wooden dais. Behind the podium is a wall built of mismatched stones, covered in spots of lichen. All that is missing is a cross delineating its religion of choice. As this is a nature classroom built by Port Azil High’s PTA, the cross would not suit.
“I’m not ready.”
Aidan watches the man pace the dais, his back to the wooden benches.
“How – ?”
Same old jeans and boots, different shirt: blue button-down rolled up to the elbows and a darker blue tie with a smiley face large and off-center. The tie flaps in the breeze of his pacing. The boots stomp the wood.
“No, I get it. Today. But get ready.”
“You know she’ll fight it.”
She takes another step, a nut cracks beneath her feet. She looks down at the crushed shell on stone.
He must have slipped the cell into a pocket. His hands are empty. He raises one to beckon her forward.
“Come on, Aidan. You’re the first.”
She takes a few more steps, cautious. They are alone in the woods around the school. The outdoor classroom dips down into the trees, hidden from all views.
All she can think is that she is alone with the man who makes her feel like he is hell personified.
“I guess it takes longer to get down here than I expected.”
“Especially if everyone else forgot,” she says.
“I put on a note on the door.”
The tardy bell rings, singing through the trees.
“I’ll give them some more time.”
“Or you could cancel the class.” She makes her way through the center aisle, trying to appear as if he didn’t send goosebumps up and down her entire body.
“Well, I could. It is Friday.”
“It would give some of us a chance to get out of the parking lot before the Rally.”
He chuckles, leaning on the stone wall. “Not today. I’ve planned a test next week.”
“Lovely,” she says, tightening her grip on her books. She lets the power part of her mind wander up the steps, searching for other students, searching for others to fill the empty benches.
He cocks his head. “Seems like it won’t just be me and you today.”
Finally, she finds the minds of others heading to the stairs that lead to the classroom.
“Aidan,” he says, before the others can start down the steps. “We need to talk.”
“About what, Mr. Morgan?”
Hearing his name like that gives him pause.
She notices and finds it odd.
“We need to talk about that last paper.”
“You gave me an A minus.”
“You could have done better.”
“I’m satisfied with an A minus.”
Aidan throws up extra walls in her mind. Something just doesn’t feel right.
When the first of the other students walk around the bend, she finds a seat on the bench in the back, as far from the teacher as she can get.
Mr. Morgan clears his throat and waits for the rest of the class to arrive and settle onto the benches.
The class on Poe begins.
It takes a few more minutes before Celia makes her way down the steps and sits beside Aidan.
“What did I miss?”
“Nothing much,” Aidan says showing her the page they are on.
“Great,” Celia whispers, “I forgot to read last night.”
“No you didn’t. You were supposed to be studying with Jason.”
“I forgot to read last night,” Celia says again, her eyebrows arch significantly.
Aidan smiles and ducks her head to keep from being called on.
Aidan lets the flow of the discussion rise and fall over her for most of the class, allowing her mind to wander. Maybe she should meet with Mr. Morgan, get this uneasy feeling out of her mind. Maybe she should meet with him and make sure he is nothing but another man with high hopes of reaching high school seniors through the canon of literary greats.
Aidan feels the tendril of thought snaking into her mind instantly.
Her eyes snap up.
Mr. Morgan is not even looking at her. His focus is on James’ erudite response from the second bench from the front.
She allows the gentle intrusion to get a taste of him so she’ll recognize him later. At least, that’s what she tells herself.
It isn’t as if there is an overabundance of telepaths in town. (That the girl knows of. I am good at what I do and with Adair’s extraordinary help I have kept Aidan in the dark, just like her mother wanted, despite any of my own objections.)
Except for her mother…and Celia, there is only Aunt Riley. Celia’s brother, Chip, only senses strong emotions and sometimes, when he is highly stressed or anxious, he can project his own feelings in a general area.
The tendril in her head, probing, feels familiar. It has to be the new substitute.
His scrutiny is skilled and meant to be too subtle to notice. She fills her foremost thoughts with words from Poe’s poetry and allows the soft exploration of her mind.
For a few minutes, even as he directs class, the prying is harmless, gentle even.
Then he nudges deeper, she feels urgency and doubt thrumming through the tendril.
She fights instinct to slam down blocks and shove him completely from her head. She fights the instinct to protect herself. She fights what her mother taught her a long time ago.
She hooks his tendril and follows it back to his head.
His uppermost thoughts are on the class, what to say, what to ask, the responses of those he calls on.
His eyes flicker to her, then back to James.
She feels him open his mind and draw her in.
Two strong minds feel each other out, dance around each other as if getting ready for a fight.
Instead of throwing up obstructions, he invites her in.
Instinct purrs, do not go. Every part of her body says, get the hell out of here.
She delves deeper into his skull, reaching for memories, reaching for things he is actually hiding behind doors and walls.
She knocks on the obstructions, pushing her way through them. It gets harder and harder.
There are things he wants to keep from her.
She is stubborn. She wants to know more. The memories she can reach do not make sense: traveling, searching for something hidden, questioning people, and beautiful views in random places. These are easy to flip through. They are unconnected. Jagged spaces interrupt these memories.
She looks for the conversation she overheard before class.
He hides it from her.
She looks for a memory of her, one that she cannot herself remember.
He throws up another barrier.
She bangs her mental fists on a particular brick wall in his head.
Something of the urgency returns.
She can tell he knows her, knows her family, knows their stubbornness.
He knows that now she has an opening, she will not relent. She will find the answers.
Aidan feels him take a deep breath.
He asks the class another question, lets them fight over the answer, because the change of scenery has ripped away their comfort zone and those who normally sit quietly in the back of the class find that today, they can speak. An oral debate serves to hide the mental skirmish between Aidan and her teacher.
Then he lets down the barriers, allows the walls to fall and the doors to open.
She is overwhelmed by thoughts, memories, emotions, that are not her own.
Pictures flip like a spun rolodex without order. Half complete thoughts jam into her head. He pours more, unrelenting. He shoves more and more of himself into her head.
At first, the pain is like a soft headache, surrounding her head like a helmet that fits just a little too snug. Only it sharpens as if someone is tightening a vise onto her skull.
Then her brain seems to fight the grip and expand until she is positive grey stuff will pop out of her eyes, leak from her nose and ears.
Aidan doesn’t feel Celia’s hand wrap around hers.
The pain in her head swells and drips down until it slithers around her heart and contracts. She doesn’t know if the agony is her own reaction to the invasion or something from his memory.
Emotions that go with the memories filter through her heart as the pictures shuffle through her brain. Nothing fits together. He’s dumped a jigsaw puzzle in her head.
And, oh God, there are so many pieces. As if he has more than thirty or so years of memories and emotions inside of him, much, much, more.
It is too much.
Her heart swells inside of her chest.
Her brain fills with pins like a pincushion.
She tries to scream, but what comes out is a soft whimper only Celia hears.
Aidan stands. Her book falls to the ground crunching on dry leaves.
She steps over the bench and stumbles up the stairs, up to the brick walls of the school. She slams through the first door she sees, searching for relief, trying to push him out of her skull.
Her vision blurs as tears form.
She grips her skull, running through the halls, mostly empty during classes.
Someone turns the corner ahead.
Aidan cannot stop her own momentum and runs into the woman.
Chloe’s glasses skitter to the floor. Her body is a non-moving barrier to Aidan’s rush.
Aidan wraps her arms around Chloe, harnessing a familiarity she is unaware had been there.
Chloe does her best to soothe.