by Wil Thomas
Dad gives me that look. That "I know you feel that way but you're young and stupid and you'll get over it," look.
Mom isn't any more sympathetic, and says that I should just be thankful for my gift in the first place. I have a gift, and people like me owe something back to society.
On that I can agree, but I just don't want to be forced to be a cop. Or join the military. Or work for the government in "counterintelligence" or "anti-terrorism.
It's the only realistic option for people with gifts like mine, and I've seen how it's been misused and abused.
I try to convince myself that I can be one of the "good ones" and change the system from within.
But even I know how unlikely that is once they've hooked me, once I'm dependent upon them for a paycheck. Not only that, but using my gift can be absolutely terrifying.
In fact, my parents have been sending me to a shrink lately because of all the nightmares I've been having.
My name is Miles Brandenburg and I'm seventeen years old. They call what I can do a gift, though I hesitate to call it as much.
Some envy those who have abilities like mine, others hate and fear people like me. The truth is, while as useful as my ability can be, I'd honestly rather be without it.
I've been doing some research lately, trying to find people like who share my concerns. It turns out that I'm far from the only one with concerns about what's expected of them.
After a few wrong turns and dead ends I find a peer group, of sorts. It's called rather unremarkably "A Place for Outsiders.
They meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights above an old bowling alley in a now nearly deserted area of town. I've driven by twice, watched the kids file into the building, and then driven off.
I don't quite know what I'm afraid of. This seems like something that I should be looking forward to, excited about. Yet I'm still afraid. Still, I think it's the good kind of fear.
Kind of like how I'm afraid to move away from home next fall but looking forward to it all the same.
The third time's the charm, apparently, and I finally get out of my car and approach the old building. There's a stairway leading down to a bowling alley.
I hear the thunder of clattering pins and the soft hum of the air conditioner.
For a moment, I find myself walking down the steps, determined to put off the meeting again and play a game instead. Nah, this needs to be done and I suck at bowling anyway.
I turn around and walk to the second floor and then through the double doors that lead to a long hallway. I feel uneasy.
This place looks abandoned, and the once harsh fluorescent lights now glow dimly and occasionally flicker on and off.
"What is this place?" I ask.
My gift provides an answer. Thirty or forty years ago, once prospering businesses had their offices here. People made their livings here, had memories good and bad.
December 19th, 1987, 10:37 p.m. There are two young workers. One is named Joel Cranston and the other Melissa Welch. They've just graduated college, and have been flirting for months.
Now they make out in the bathroom as Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" blasts over the speakers at Terminus Computation's Christmas party.
The couple--now in their fifties--still look back on that night and smile. And they can't believe they'll be grandparents in just a few months.
I turn my head. Here's a sadder story. It's May 5th, 2000, sometime during the afternoon. This time I can't tell. Jacob Winslow is staring blankly at his computer screen.
His portfolio all but evaporated last month and his boss gave the employees about a two-hour notice that the entire company was being shut down. No severance, no nothing.
He's just bought a new house and his daughter is a student at Vanderbilt University. How is going to be pay for the mortgage and the tuition now?
I know the answer. He has that life insurance policy and...
I shake my head and force out the onslaught of memories not my own. My stomach drops and my head spins. I'm able to grab the wall and avoid landing face first into it, but only just.
There's too much here. I have to leave. I'll find another way. As I turn to do so, one of the doors in the hallway opens.
For a moment, I'm frozen in fear. But a handsome, and perhaps too-casual guy about my age steps out, and smiles at me. "Miles Brandenburg?" he says, and then chuckles. "About time. Come on in."
I hesitate for a moment. I begin to ask him how he knows my name and how he knows I've been wanting to come here, but I figure he probably knows things like I know things. He just does.
Plus, I have to admit that I'm disarmed by him. I try to regain my footing with as much dignity as possible, then I extend my hand. He firmly shakes it and motions me into the room.
"I'm Josh Nazar," he says. There's something so plain and kind in his voice. It's rich, baritone, and hypnotic.
It's the sort of voice you find yourself listening to and then doing exactly what you're told, thinking all along that it's really your idea to begin with.
I follow Josh into the meeting room, and find myself quite surprised that it isn't dingy teetering between pathetic and sad, but quite well-appointed.
The floors are old, but recently polished hardwood, and the walls are painted in a soothing sky blue.
There's bottled water and snacks on a table in the corner, containing a variety of little sandwiches. About a dozen or so people are standing around laughing and chatting with one another.
Out of some sort of perverse instinct, I close my eyes and reach out with my sight. I see nothing but blinding light and a sound like cymbals being crashed right over my head. I wince.
"Not here, babe," a soft voice says. I open my eyes.
She's looking up at me with large dark eyes and a single strand of raven hair rests on her cheek. She looks to be about sixteen or seventeen.
She's wearing ripped jeans and a Soundgarden t-shirt. She pushes the hair away from her face and smiles. "Sorry about that."
"No using gifts here until everyone knows what they are."
My face burns like a furnace. I want to say something clever, funny, cool, but all words escape me. Now I'm just staring. At her lips, bright red in contrast to her nearly ivory skin.
That smart-ass smirk. And those eyes, my god, those eyes. Okay, so I'm not the most experienced when it comes to girls, but I've had girlfriends and been on dates. Well, sort of.
Alright, last summer, Cara Dawson and I went to the movies a few times and kissed at a Drew Haggard's birthday party for like thirty seconds. So that counts for something, doesn't it?
"I'm Miles Brandenburg," I say. It's not the clever riposte I'd been looking for, but anything is better than that awkward silence.
"Val Rodgers," she answers, and reaches out to shake my hand. "That's short for Valerie. Come on, you can sit by me tonight."
I follow, and glance around at the other people in the group. Some look like they could be on the football team, others the drama club.
Some look they shop at Neiman Marcus, and others the Goodwill.
If the cars in the parking lot outside are any indication, some drive Mercedes and BMWs, and other old clunkers in need of about a thousand repairs.
"Okay everyone, let's get things started," Josh says. A few mosey over to the semi-circle of foldout chairs and sit down.
Still more seem not have heard him and continue their conversations, completely oblivious.
"Guys, come on!" he speaks a little louder this time. Josh isn't mad, but I get the feeling that he has to do this at every meeting more or less.
Slowly, everyone makes their way toward the semi-circle, a few taking quite a bit longer than strictly necessary.
"That's Andriy Moskalenko," Val says to me, motioning with her chin at one of the guys taking a seat directly across from us.
"He moved from his parents a few years ago from Crimea, that's in Ukraine."
"Word is that the Russian military 'invited' him to enlist in a special unit of people like him and he wasn't interested."
"Well, the Russian government doesn't like hearing 'no' even if you're not Russian."
I regard Andriy. He's six foot three, six foot four at least, and nothing less than 250 pounds. His arms, which are the size of my legs, are casually crossed across his chest.
He has the buzz cut of a marine, and a sharp, angular face. I can't help but imagine it's the kind of face that may belong to a mafia enforcer sent out to "collect" on outstanding loans.
I swallow a little and say, "I guess I don't know need to ask what his gift is."
"He's up to bench pressing about 3,000 pounds now. Has bones stronger than steel too," Val answers.
It takes me a few seconds to realize that Val is neither exaggerating nor being facetious. Jesus. What am I doing here? Andriy can literally lift cars and tear them apart.
Val can heap some sort of psychic attack on people. And what can I do? See bits and pieces of memories and events that happened years, or even decades ago.
I feel that familiar sting of inadequacy.
"That's Sarah Estes." Damn it, Val. Interrupting my pity party. She nods at a tall, impeccably dressed blonde wearing heels that I imagine cost as much as most people make in a week.
She looks distastefully at the seat of her chair and brushes something unseen off it. Then she sits down, crosses her legs, and pulls a phone out of her purse.
I look at Val, expecting her to tell me more about her.
"I'm calling to order this meeting of A Place for Outsiders," Josh begins before Val can answer.