1.6 Hidden From the World, pt 2

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"I was certain that I was the only mind reader in the world," Thomas went on. "But I was wrong. A mind reader gave me a map with your name on it, and a route to your hidden house. They must be interested in you for some reason."

Alex looked guarded again. All traces of amusement were gone.  

Margo tried to sound reassuring. "They might never show up."

"Even if someone does show up," Thomas said, "you don't have to endure it alone. You'll always be different from other people. But so what? You're not that different."

It was plain that Alex didn't trust these words. Without moving a muscle, he inspected one of his immense hands, as if waiting for them to go away and leave him alone. Margo had seen that perpetual wariness in terminal patients. They were immune to words of comfort.

"We can leave," Margo offered, although she wanted to stay, if only to explore the sky room. Books overflowed three bookshelves. Most had titles that she loved or wanted to read. She recognized most of the video-games, too. Alex seemed to share her tastes.

"I do understand," Thomas said. "I spent my life scrambling to cure this fatal disease." He gestured at his frail body. "It's nearly impossible for a kid to work full-time, let alone gain respect from a major biotech company. I had to impress layers upon layers of adults. It took years. And the research itself was the biggest challenge of my life. Earlier this year, back in May, I gave up. I was ready to die." Thomas dangled his arms over the armrests, as if he didn't care who listened, but he seemed to have everyone's attention. Even Lynn looked interested, despite herself. She sat in a normal-sized rocking chair.

"My research led to dead ends," he went on. "My experiments were useless. At that point, I knew I'd failed, and I would die in adolescence. I had wasted my whole life on something futile. I wished I'd never been born."

Margo recalled his springtime depression. He had stopped eating for a few days.

"So I decided I might as well make the most of my final months." Thomas gestured around the sky room. "Sort of like how you've made yourself comfortable here. Might as well, right?"

Alex looked rapt.

"I spent as much time as possible with Cherise." Thomas gestured towards her. "We went on family trips. Like, canoeing, and sipping hot cocoa in a ski lodge. Things like that. I'd never experienced fun firsthand before." He tapped his head. "I absorb other people's memories, so in a way, I've experienced most things. But my own personal experiences are more meaningful. And rare." He looked towards Cherise. "She saw that I'd given up, and she refused to watch me die."

Margo studied the two of them. They spent a lot of time together, but she'd never imagined that Cherise had something to do with his medical breakthrough.

"She insisted that I work," Thomas said. "Whenever I stopped, she skipped meals and refused to sleep. So I tried a crazy off-the-wall approach. Instead of following the processes I'd absorbed from this or that scientist, I stitched together my own pastiche of their methods, and did something radically different that no one in their right mind would have taken seriously." He patted his medicine case. "I'm going to live to adulthood because of Cherise. She saved my life."

Cherise showed no sign of pride.

"I used to think it was impossible that anyone would care about me that much," Thomas said. "If it's possible for someone like me, then it's definitely possible for you."

Alex seemed to gather his courage. When he spoke, his voice was so powerfully deep, the air seemed to vibrate. "Loneliness," he said, "is worse than death."

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