1.4 Harnessed

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Margo dumped the trash into the outside bin, and she was about to go back inside when she caught sight of a reflection in one of the dirt-grimed windows of the house. The minivan looked odd. It was parked in its usual place, but its metallic red surface showed more than the dark colors of the forest. Someone was standing out there.

She whirled around to see Cherise and Thomas, as motionless as rabbits. They didn't blend in with the woods very well.

"What are you two doing out here?" Margo walked over to them, worried. Neither had a reason to be outside in the freezing cold. Thomas in particular should avoid health stress, since his lungs were too frail to cope with a prolonged cough. A common cold could land him in the hospital.

The guilt on Cherise's face was enough of an answer. Sure enough, she gripped the ignition key for the minivan.

"You've got to be kidding me." Margo gently took the key from Cherise. "You don't even have a driver's license."

Thomas seemed as gravely self-assured as the hospital directors she worked for. "Margo, you have no idea how important this is."

His self-assurance sometimes tricked people into treating him like an adult. But Margo knew how little control he actually had over his life. He didn't choose his own clothes, or his own brand of toothpaste, or his meals. Even if his medicine gave him enough strength to live for another decade or two, he would remain utterly dependent on caretakers, unable to live alone. She worked with chronically ill adult patients in St. Andrew's Hospital. Even the most headstrong patients—retired drill sergeants, former cops, former CEOs—became childlike when forced into chronic helplessness. Thomas would never be a self-reliant adult, no matter what age he was.

She folded her arms. "What's so important that you have to go sneaking out of the house when it's almost dark?"

"Okay." Thomas sounded impatient. "That woman who was in our driveway was a telepath. The only way I'm going to learn more about her, and where I come from, is to follow the map she gave me."

Margo took the folded map that Cherise offered to her. She unfolded it, tracing a maze-like route through northern wilderness. Any normal person would be wary of strangers with unknown agendas, and mysterious forests at night. The thought of mundane danger probably never crossed Thomas's mind.

"If there was any danger," Thomas said, "I would have sensed it."

Of course. He probably knew everything about the blond woman, down to her favorite breakfast cereal. Margo shook her head.

Someone had printed ALEXANDER DOVANACK in permanent marker at the end of the drawn route. She tapped it. "Who's this?"

"Possibly someone who's related to me," Thomas said. "Maybe a mind reader. I need to go." He held her gaze. "If you have any respect for me, then please recognize that I'm capable of governing my own life." He patted his medicine case. "I'd never have invented NAI-12 if I followed the rules that adults set out for me. You understand that."

Margo slumped as she considered forcing him back inside the house and telling her mother. On the whole, she was proud whenever people mentioned her foster brother. Everyone in town knew who he was. Someday, she felt sure, Thomas Hill would be as respected as Louis Pasteur or Albert Einstein. His medicine would save thousands of lives.

"I'm sorry." She tried to hand the map back. "You know I can't let you go."

"Drive me." Thomas watched her. "I'll take the blame, I promise. Tell your mom that I blackmailed you."

Margo was about to repeat her refusal, but she glimpsed something unexpected in Cherise's gaze. Cherise looked calculating.

Even if Thomas was confined to his bedroom, and the minivan keys were secured, Margo suspected that Cherise would find a way to help her best friend. Their biggest obstacle was probably driving, not breaking house rules. The White Mountains often had bad weather. Without any driving experience, they might be unable to handle black ice or a snow squall.

Margo studied Cherise. "Is he worth it?"

Cherise nodded, shy beneath her bangs.

"Well . . ." Margo felt torn. If the blond stranger was a telepath, like Thomas, that opened up a world of possibilities. Maybe some clandestine organization of crime fighters wanted to test Thomas in a hidden recruitment facility.

Don't be stupid. Margo nearly crumpled up the map and threw it away. She had worked all her life to earn her mother's trust. Her middle name might as well be "Responsibility." She packed school lunches and did all the yard work. Even as a five year old, she'd been the responsible child, soothing her foster siblings whenever they threw screaming tantrums.

If she trudged back inside with Thomas, she would need to keep an eye on him all night, like a jailer. Meanwhile, the refrigerator needed cleaning, and so did the upstairs toilet, and . . .

Her chest felt constrained, as if responsibility was a harness. The house would remain decrepit, no matter how well she cleaned it. Her foster siblings would always be disadvantaged, no matter how much she helped them.

Sometimes Margo felt as if she was stuck in quicksand. In her daydreams, she was a pilot, soaring to tropical paradises where everyone lived to their full potential, happy and healthy.

"Ugh. I really shouldn't." Margo slapped one hand on the minivan, angry at herself. She would never abandon her family or her job. Such selfishness didn't bear thinking about.

But home would always be there, waiting for her. A couple of hours away wouldn't harm anyone.

"All right." she lowered the wheelchair platform. "We'll check out this map, and then we're going straight home."

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