1.4 Once Upon a Summer

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Thomas Hill, aged six—almost seven—studied an obsolete college textbook about neuroendocrinology. The book weighed half as much as he did, and he couldn't have lifted it even with all of his strength. His limbs were underdeveloped, short and skeletal from atrophy. The best he could do was turn pages, and crane his head to maximize his view of each page spread.

The text and diagrams got branded into his memory. He couldn't seem to forget things, no matter how hard he tried. He could recite the exact script of every infomercial on TV. He knew every crumb of dirt on the kitchen linoleum, the exact layout of the grassy patches in the weed-choked yard, and every wakeful millisecond of his own life, dating back to before he'd become self-aware.

He hated knowing so many things that didn't matter. Sometimes he considered ways to steal beer out of the fridge, just to see if intoxication would blur his memories. The fridge always had plenty of beer, if nothing else.

Or he could try the pain medications his foster mother swallowed every day. Her addiction to opioids made her tremble, and he didn't want to add to his own massive physical problems, but what if opioids affected his memory?

It would be worth it.

He needed to learn about neurochemistry, plus anything that might help him diagnose his many problems. This textbook was a rare treasure. The public library didn't offer in-depth books about neuroscience, and neither did the local bookstores. Thomas wasn't allowed to touch the computer, and even if he risked it, he would never wrangle enough time to hack into college databases and read his fill of online textbooks.

So he had talked to Blind Donna—the only one of them who had an outside family member who regularly gave her money—and he'd persuaded Donna to buy a few secondhand books. In return, he promised to tell her anything she wished to know, any time she asked.

They both thought it was a pretty good bargain.

A sense of danger interrupted Thomas's scan of the textbook. Crackling flames. A burning stench.

He reluctantly looked up from the book. The drapes were on fire.

Jerry, one of the developmentally disabled boys, had apparently found the cigarette lighter, and now he gaped at the curtains. He thumbed the lighter on and off, backing away in stunned disbelief. Thomas sensed that Jerry wanted it to work like a TV remote control. He wanted to make the flames to stop.

"Fire!" Thomas's voice was high-pitched and squeaky with fear; so weak, he wanted to cry. "Help! There's a fire!"

A lampshade began to burn. It flared rapidly, and flames danced across the carpet. Soon they would head towards the ratty couch where Thomas sat.

Jerry threw the lighter away and sped past Thomas, out of the room.

The doorway was so close, Thomas could reach it, if only he could walk. But he couldn't even stand up without help. His basic-model wheelchair was folded up in the kitchen. The "parents" of this home only provided their wards with bare minimal aid. They spent most of their meager income on beer and pain meds.

Thomas sucked in as much air as his weak lungs could hold, and shrieked.

He was going to die horribly, trapped and helpless. No one would care. His birth parents, whoever they were, would probably laugh with relief when they heard about his death in the news.

He shrieked again and again. His throat burned, and his chest ached, but at least he would die loudly.

"What is it?" his foster father roared. "What ...?" He leaned into the room and peered at the fire with intoxicated, bloodshot eyes.

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