Denise lay perfectly still next to her husband in the chill of the night. No sounds filtered in the window – the cicadas had all died in the last frost, and even the coyotes were uncharacteristically quiet. The town held its breath.
Mark snored softly beside her, fragmented tendrils of dreams filling the space between them, scenes from real life mixing with details from the horror vid he had watched before bed.
A house. A dog. A picnic. A monster lurking behind the tree, hungry.
On his nightstand lay a loaded pistol, faintly glinting in the pale moonlight.
Heart pounding, she pushed off the covers, slid her legs over the side of the bed, and paused, listening to Mark’s breathing, watching his dreams.
The hungry monster was sniffing the food, listening to the gleeful cheers of the children, waiting to strike.
Denise slowly got out of bed and opened the closet door, just widely enough to grab the pillowcase. In the living room she checked to make sure that everything she'd placed in it was still there – jewelry, credit chip, change of clothes. She dressed – jogging pants and sweater from the second-hand store, bearing the logo of some university she’d never heard of.
No gloves. No insignia. It was illegal, she knew – but nothing the Corps could do to her was worse than what Mark was doing already. She had to get out of town without being seen, and into the city where the Corps had an office bigger than a bug. A telepath traveling alone at night – that would attract the wrong kind of attention.
The mattress in the bedroom creaked, and she looked up. She felt the dream bubble pop, felt Mark wake up, fling his hands across the bed for her, and feel nothing but empty, warm sheets.
Oh God, no. No. He’s coming.
His anger peaked.
She froze in terror.
“Denise! Where the fuck are you?”
“I’m… I’m just in the toilet,” she croaked.
But he already knew she was lying, and he was up out of bed and flinging open the bedroom door with a crash. He stormed into their small living room and flicked on the light.
He slapped her across the face.
“What the hell is this?” he shouted, grabbing a handful of the sweater in his meaty fist. “You thinking of leaving?”
“Of course not!”
Another slap. “That’s for lying to me! You have a boyfriend? You fucking around behind my back?”
There had never been anyone else in the two years of their marriage, but he only seemed to grow more and more jealous. One by one he’d driven her friends away, insisting he was enough for her and that she needed no one else. Now, he scanned her every day to make sure she hadn’t been talking to any men. She knew if she said so much as hello, or looked at a man the wrong way, he’d beat her for it.
“Who is he?” barked her husband. “Tell me or I’m gonna scan you, and make it hurt.”
She started to cry. “There’s no one else. No one. Just do it and get it over with.”
He did, and she screamed. “Don’t you even think of leaving this apartment,” he ordered. “Is that clear?”
She nodded, eyes closed, face pressed against the fuzzy upholstery of the couch, waves of nausea rising up through her.
“What happens in the family stays in the family.”
A nod. Another wave of nausea.
“You ever leave, I’ll kill you,” he hissed.
Denise skipped work the next day, and tried to get help from a local normal-run center for abused women. The office was located in a nondescript office building a few towns over. There was no sign for the third-floor office - you just had to know to ring the buzzer and ask for Alice.
They could see her on the screen, and see she was alone. Naked. Gloveless. They buzzed her in and made her wait for almost an hour on the not-quite-brown, not-quite-purple couch. She sat, rubbing her hands nervously over the almost-velvet fabric, and stared that the posters, artwork, and hand-made quilts on the walls.
Find Your Strength.
Denise had lost her strength the day her school telepathy test had come back positive. Her parents had dropped her at the Corps station and never looked back. Denise had been cast out of the normal world at thirteen, but she never fully fit into the telepath world, either. She’d found no family in the Corps, only rules and restrictions. They always treated her like a child, and they probably would till the day she died.
We are all children of the Corps, they’d made her recite in school. Children who were never allowed to grow up.
“Can I help you?” an older woman asked, taking her into a back office and closing the door. Denise sensed authority about her. Alice, she assumed. The office walls, decorated with plaques and awards, affirmed her impression.
“My husband controls me,” Denise said. “He’s going to beat me for coming here. I need to get out.”
“We don’t ever reveal the names of our clients,” Alice said, trying to reassure her. “Unless he has followed you here, he won’t know.”
“Of course he will, he’ll scan me tonight. But I need to get out, you hear? If you can get me a place to stay, then I’ll have a few days to figure it out.”
Alice started. "What did you say? Scan you?"
Oh no, I blew it already.
"Your husband is a telepath?"
She considered lying - some telepaths got married before their talents developed or were identified by the Corps, so while intermarriages were rare, they did happen.
No. She didn't come here to lie. She came here for help.
The woman shook her head. “I'm sorry. Emergency shelters don’t accept telepaths. I assume you've been in touch with the Corps?"
“What do you mean they don’t accept telepaths?”
The woman wrung her hands nervously. “It’s shelter policy. The women there are all in very vulnerable situations. Surely you understand why the presence of a telepath would be very upsetting to some people in that circumstance.”
Denise played stupid. “No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“With all due respect, you’re a security risk. A privacy risk. We can’t take that chance."
"I'm a risk? My husband threatens to kill me and you're calling me a risk?!"
"I understand why you came here, Denise, and I sympathize, but there's nothing we can do. And you've made trouble for us already. You're trying to avoid attention, I get that. I understand why you might have chosen to come here without your insignia on... but no. Denise, we don't have a sign out front so that we’re a little hard to find, so our clients can come here and feel safe. If your husband is scanning you every day, he’ll know our address. What if he comes here to harm us? The safety of our clients comes first, I’m sure you understand.”
Denise stood outside at the bus stop, and wanted to cry. She'd gone to them for help, and they'd called her just about the worst thing anyone could call her - selfish. She was some kind of "risk" to the women in the shelter. Alice hadn't said it aloud, but Denise had pieced it together. There were women there who would be traumatized by the presence of a telepath, because to them, telepathy was rape.
The autumn wind whipped leaves around her feet. She avoided eye contact with the other waiting passengers. In school they’d always told her to trust the Corps, but she didn’t. What would they do, arrest Mark? "Disappear" him forever? She didn’t want him to get hurt, she just wanted him to stop hurting her.
How had everything gone so, so wrong? she wondered. She had been a happy child. Why had her parents thrown her out, like she was some kind of monster? And how had Mark transformed from the sweet, loving, thoughtful man she’d married, into this tyrant?
You’re a telepath, she could imagine normals jeering. How come you didn’t know he would abuse you?
It’s not his fault! she wanted to shout. He was raised in a broken home! He tries to be better, really he does! He just… goes too far. He can’t trust me. He can’t trust anyone. And all day he puts up with normals talking down to him, and it’s yes sir, yes ma’am, anything you like, ma’am. He has no control over his life, so he has to control me. It’s not his fault. But he… he goes too far.
Another wintry gust of air blew. Emotion swelled up in her chest and she started to cry. None of the normals noticed.
When he got home from work, he scanned her. Then he punched her in the face and dragged her by the hair into the kitchen.
“Stupid bitch, don’t you understand me? I said if you tried to leave, I’d kill you.”
He pinned her to the kitchen floor, knee digging sharply into her back, hand around her throat. She tried to breathe, but it was hopeless. The world started to become blurry.
He won’t do it, he’s just bluffing, he’s just bluffing…
“Damn right I’ll do it! Just you watch!”
She squeezed her eyes shut and felt the cold tile against her cheek. She couldn’t fight him physically, let alone telepathically. He was a P6, and she barely a P4.
He merely wants me to think I’m dying…
Terror set in anyway.
“You ever leave me, and I’ll kill you! Both you and that son of a bitch you run away with!”
The world tunneled in and she blacked out.
The next time she spoke to someone he didn’t like, he smashed her head into the wall. Then, as she lay dazed on the floor, he called the normal medics and told them she’d suffered a bad fall.
In the big city, any well-trained medics would see the red flags. Why would a telepath call the normal medics, if not because they had something to hide?
But this was a small town, and Denise and Mark hadn't lived in town for even a year. The medics just did their job - they checked her vitals and brought her to the normal hospital.
The hospital saw she was a telepath, followed procedure, and called the Corps.
A Psi Cop pulled back the curtains and entered her “room” in the emergency department. Stocky, in her forties, with closely cropped brown hair, this cop was the kind of woman who, Denise decided, had probably earned at least three black belts in martial arts.
She stood over Denise’s bed and looked the younger woman over.
“Who did this to you?” the cop asked, point blank, with no preamble.
“No one," Denise lied. "I got into an accident. I walked into the doorframe.”
“That’s what you told the mundane medics?”
“...Yes, ma’am.” Denise worried that the normals would overhear the Psi Cop calling them "mundanes."
“I call 'em what they are. Now, about your accident. The Corps is Mother and Father. You can tell me what really happened.”
“It’s the truth.” She didn’t expect the Psi Cop to believe her, but she hoped at least she would keep the secret.
“Uhuh. This wall that jumped you… did it happen to look like anyone you know?”
Denise gingerly shook her head. “Just a wall.”
The medical equipment above her bed softly beeped. The Psi Cop pulled over a chair and sat.
“Do you walk into walls often?”
“Sometimes, yes. I have poor balance. I trip over things.”
“That’s not in your medical record.”
The Psi Cop let out a frustrated sigh. “In the Corps, we don’t let our people get jumped by walls – not by normal walls, and not by telepath walls either.”
There was another long pause, as the cop waited. Denise wished she’d leave. She didn’t want to talk to the cop, but the longer she asked questions, the harder it would be for Denise to keep her from seeing her surface thoughts. Something would slip, if it hadn’t already.
She was only a P4.
“All right… can you give me a description of this wall?” asked the cop. “Plaster? Wood? Wallpaper?”
Denise chuckled, and she couldn’t help her thoughts from flickering over to Mark. Damn… she was blooping like a baby.
The officer made some notes in a data pad.
“Oh, I’m getting the picture now. That kind of wall. This wall’s really been giving you trouble for a while now.”
“No, not really. Please leave me alone. I want to get some rest.”
The Psi Cop heaved herself up. “You’re brave, you know that? I want you to know that. You’ve got my solemn promise – that wall will never, ever, hurt you again.”
Denise’s mouth went dry. The Corps was going to arrest him. It was all her fault. She hadn’t been able to block – how could she, really, with a Psi Cop – and now they were going to take him away. “Please,” she begged, tears in her eyes. “He doesn’t mean to be a bad person. He’s sorry, I know he is. He loses control and goes too far, but he’s always really sorry afterward. He doesn’t mean it. Please, whatever you do, don’t hurt him.”
Denise came home from the hospital the next day to find the apartment empty. There were signs of a struggle – smashed glass, furniture tossed about, scrapes along the walls and the doors. Mark was gone.
Denise feared the worst. Mark was never coming back. The Corps had taken him and thrown him in a prison cell somewhere and it was all her fault. She should have thrown the Psi Cop out of the hospital room, and never should have given her a chance to see her thoughts. It was all her fault for letting the officer see her thoughts.
Denise rummaged through the fridge for leftovers, but had no appetite. She’d done it, she’d killed him. She was a murderer. She deserved to burn in hell. It was all her fault, everything was her fault.
She couldn’t sleep. She could barely eat. She had no close friends left, no one she could call.
She opened a beer and lay down on the coach.
An hour passed. Two. Night fell.
Thunder crashed outside, and she heard rain beating down on the windows in torrents.
At least the sky was miserable for her.
The door opened.
Denise jumped. Drenched from head to toe, Mark stood in front of her, eyes wild with fury, the pistol in his hand.
“You told the police,” he snarled, as she sat up. “You little bitch. First you try to tell the normals, and then you tell the Psi Cops. Did you really think you could get away with it?”
He stepped over to the couch and pressed the cold metal of the pistol to her forehead. Click, he cocked it. She looked into his eyes, and knew it was over. Mark didn’t care what the Corps would do to him, he was going to murder her.
This time he meant it for real.
And she’d done it all to herself. It was all her fault.
“Yeah, it is your fault, you filthy piece of shit. While you were in the medical center, they came for me, hit me with a stun weapon and dragged me off like some animal. I’ll get you for this. I’ll get you good.”
He pressed the gun harder against her forehead.
One shot and it would all be over.
Her heart raced in her chest. She could barely breathe. Every second ticked by like an hour.
The Psi Cop lied, she thought. This is going to be my last thought on this Earth – the Psi Cop lied. The Corps is supposed to protect telepaths, but they don’t really care. Mother and Father, huh? They just made him hate me more, and now he’s going to kill me. The Psi Cop lied.
“I HATE YOU!” he roared.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He didn’t pull the trigger.
“I’ll rip your guts out and hang them from the ceiling! I’ll have your head on a post outside this door! I’ll chop off your limbs and throw them in the furnace!”
He didn’t pull the trigger.
“I’ll beat your sorry, cheating ass until there’s nothing left but blood and pulp!”
As he raged on, hate and the burning desire for violent revenge blazing in his eyes, she slowly slipped out of the picture frame, and watched events unfold as if from a distance.
He screamed. He cursed. He didn't pull the trigger.
He wasn’t going to shoot. He wasn’t going to carry out any of his threats. He wasn’t going to lay a hand on her.
Realization hit him a second later.
He turned, and shot a hole through the apartment window, shattering the glass. He put the gun back to her head.
Panicking, he threw the gun out the window and almost comically, raised his hand to strike her, but couldn’t move. He grabbed a vase off the table and made to throw it at her, but paused, arm and vase poised in mid-air.
He dropped the vase with a heavy thud onto the living room carpet.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID THEY DO TO ME?!”
Denise stood, pushed right past him and walked to the bedroom, where she started to gather up her belongings and put them back into the pillow case. Mark collapsed onto the living room carpet, wailing like a baby. She filled the makeshift bag with her documents, her valuables, and all the money she could find.
Then she stuffed all that and more into Mark's real suitcase. She had all the time in the world now.
“WHAT, WHAT, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE?!”
She stepped right over him, and walked confidently over to the door.
Empower. Heal. Find your strength.
Maybe she’d leave for good. Maybe she’d come back. Either way, her relationship with Mark was never going to be the same.
“What did they do to me?!” he sobbed on the floor, pathetically.
She silently slipped on her gloves and insignia, and reached for the door handle.
Thunder cracked outside.
There was no one stopping her now.