1.4 Once Upon a Summer

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"Help!"

Thomas sounded like a wheedling child. It was not the sort of voice that Mr. Gotte respected. As far as Gotte was concerned, most kids were greedy, self-absorbed pests, and Thomas was the worst. Gotte believed that Thomas exaggerated his weakness in order to manipulate everyone around him with pity.

So Gotte gave Thomas a smug grin, and his thoughts were unmistakable. He was going to pretend that he'd missed seeing this particular problem. He would get insurance money for the burned-down house, and one less disabled kid to feed and clothe. Good riddance to Thomas, the creepy know-it-all.

"They'll know you could have saved me!" Thomas screamed, desperate. "People can hear!"

Gotte hesitated.

"Just pick me up!" Thomas cried. "Be a hero!"

Gotte seized him in strong, burly arms. He radiated a noble mood, and in that instant, Thomas felt sure that he was safe. His foster father was going to do a nice thing, for once.

I'll do the world a favor. Get rid of this demon forever.

At such a close range, Thomas couldn't help but sense private intentions. Gotte believed that he was evil. Possibly the Anti-Christ.

Gotte grabbed the back of Thomas's head. So much for his screaming.

A healthy kid would have struggled. All Thomas had was a mouth and a brain that infuriated grown-ups.

He used his last second of life to burrow deep inside Gotte's mind, desperate to find a humiliation or a trauma; anything that might induce his attacker to change his mind. But Thomas was so panicked, he accidentally overshot his goal, tearing through layers of vile secrets.

He burrowed into the primeval knot at the core of Gotte's mind.

All people and creatures had a primeval knot. This was the foundation of a mind; the core of animal instincts upon which everything else was built. Terrified beyond reason, Thomas wrapped himself around that primal core, as if he could wrench it, like Gotte was about to wrench his head around.

His own terror seemed to give his mind a weight that it didn't normally have. The primal core broke. Thomas sensed it twist and snap.

He withdrew his intense focus just in time to brace himself as he fell. Gotte seemed to have forgotten about snapping his neck. Instead, his foster father stood slack-jawed, ignoring the fire and everything else.

Thomas landed on the couch.

The room was boiling. Thomas's skin prickled as his sweat evaporated. "Please," he whimpered, even though it must be useless. "Please carry me away from this fire."

Gotte seemed to be in a numbed state of shock. Thomas expected him to shake it off and get back to murder, or to run away. He screamed when Gotte seized him without any apparent forethought.

Instead of snapping his neck, Gotte slung Thomas over one hairy shoulder and trotted into the kitchen. Only one thought dominated the shattered remnants of his mind. All he wanted to do was carry Thomas away from this fire. Carry Thomas away from this fire. Carry Thomas away from this fire.

The girl with cerebral palsy gave them a frightened look.

"Mr. Gotte?" Thomas said. At least the air was easier to breathe in the kitchen. "Can you stop the fire?"

Gotte moaned in agitation, shifting from foot to foot. He heard motivational significance in every word, but it contradicted the priority that he should carry Thomas away from this fire. He could not process what was expected of him.

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