Mind Over Misery

📅 Published on September 12, 2021

“Mind Over Misery”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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Katie Watson gazed around at the vast, opulent room. For the first time in her professional career, she felt small and vulnerable. The world had changed in the last several years, but the building they were in had remained unaltered since its construction over a hundred years prior. Perhaps, she fancied, it was a testament to how truth and justice would prevail against the tides of time. Or maybe, regarding its dim lighting, classical pillars, and blood-red canvas walls, the Supreme Court Building was already intimidating enough on its own.

The courtroom was a welcome respite from the chaos outside; but whereas the sounds of inflamed protestors were like grinding, crushing machinery, inside the shallow whispers reminded Watson of a nest of snakes. She only preferred the latter slightly.

To her right, sitting in the front row, was the defense. Watson had tackled innumerable cases of human rights violations in her career, and despite the scum often represented on the defendants’ side, none had ever succeeded in intimidating her. But the man nestled in between the stony-faced suits was repellant and off-putting to her in a way that got under her skin. It wasn’t his shabby brown suit, hunched lanky physique, messy hair, or the black bags under his eyes that unnerved her (although that alone toed the edge of creepy). Jutting from his forehead was something that resembled a giant lugnut seemingly drilled into his skull. Despite its medieval design Watson knew it was the only proven way to impede whatever powers (for lack of a better term) the man possessed. Still, the sight of a man crippled by an experimental device partially buried into his frontal lobe did not bode well for the prosecution’s image.

The Chief Justice cleared his throat. “We will hear argument this morning in Case 95-791, Ranford versus Zanotti.”

The crowds’ whispers died away immediately as Watson, broken from her trance, strode up to the podium and set her opening statement in front of her. Straightening out her papers, she reflected on how for the last several months the media had been considering this moment not a hearing or an argument, but rather a summit. She didn’t like reminding herself of it, but whatever happened with his case would be one of the most severely consequential rulings in the history of the country. She had firmly pledged herself to one side of the ongoing debate, the side that would have swift ramifications for the defendant and others like him. But she knew all too well that the counterarguments were just as virulent and they had their own support.

Watson tried not to imagine Edmond Zanotti’s heavy-lidded eyes boring through the back of her head. She had read accounts of what effect people like him had over their victims, and although his mind was blocked, she still felt paranoid and uncomfortable with him directly behind her.

Nevertheless, she delved into her opening statements. The lines were burned into her brain and she recited them with seasoned precision. Her thoughts, however, wandered beyond what her mouth was saying.

My God…when did all this insanity begin?

* * * * * *

April 24th, 1998.

Robert Stiles observed the schoolyard from his opulent principal’s office, his eyes squinting against the mid-afternoon spring sun. Classes were over with and the kids ought to have gone home for the weekend. But that day a large group of them had gathered around one of the picnic benches, their attention glued to what was happening in the middle of them. Stiles had to chuckle to himself; he was sure the faculty would have killed for such retention from the students in their classrooms.

Ever since fifth-grader Jeremy Bowen had brought in his Electronic Battleship game, the same two dozen students had met after school at the same time and place to challenge each other in light-hearted tournaments. Gambling and prizes were never an option; it was all for fun (and against school rules for that matter), and the fact that they had kept at it consistently for so long was a testament to how engaged and productive they were. Normally such gatherings drew scrutiny from the administration, but Stiles ultimately concluded there were much worse ways ten-year-olds could be spending their time off than Battleship. “Let them play,” he’d decreed.

That didn’t mean there weren’t problems. Earlier that week a few students (under the guarantee of anonymity) complained that a particular player, Walton Becker, was cheating. Walton had never lost a single game and he almost always accurately guessed the placement of his opponents’ ships within one or two tries. Stiles had played enough Battleship in his past to recognize luck was indeed a significant factor in the game. But he had to admit, watching Walton thrash his opponent once again made Stiles question just how much “luck” was behind it. Children could be crafty and conniving in ways that’d make even the slimiest corporate mogul blush.

From behind the window he watched Walton press a few buttons, and his opponent slam her hands on the table and stick a red peg on one of her ships. The gatherers erupted in cheers, yet from his vantage point Stiles could make out a few shaking their heads with skepticism. Stiles turned to the door. Best to get them now before they started a new game.

The sun was bright and the pollen irritated his sinuses; he stifled a sneeze and sniffled on his way to the bench. The kids all stopped and looked at him as he approached, their eyes like golf balls.

“It’s alright, kids,” Stiles affirmed in a pleasant tone. “Mr. Becker, could I see you in my office for a tick?”

Walton’s eyebrow raised, but he slipped off the bench and accompanied Stiles back into the schoolhouse. There was a hushed silence behind them. His peers might as well have been watching their fellow classmate being led to the slaughter.

“Sit down, Mr. Becker,” Stiles offered as he led him into his office. “You’re not in trouble. I just want to talk to you.” Walton remained silent as he lowered onto the chair across from the principal’s desk. “Now,” Stiles continued, “it looks like you and your friends are having a lot of fun playing Battleship out there.”

“Yeah,” said Walton with a nod.

“Do you win a lot of games?” said Stiles.

Another nod. “Yeah.”

“I heard you’re really good at it,” Stiles followed. “Your friends are impressed with you. Heck, I am as well. So I’m curious if you could tell me your uh…your strategy?”

Walton shrugged. “I don’t know. The answers just come to me. I say what’s in my head.”

“You’re guessing?”

“No. I didn’t say that.”

“So you’re strategizing.”

“I don’t think so…”

“So what are you doing?” Stiles’s tone became more curt. “Are you receiving help from any of your friends?”

“No!” said Walton, indignant.

“So you’re not cheating?”

“Of course not!” Walton retorted. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Things just kind of…appear in my head, especially when I play Battleship. I look at someone and I hear voices…they tell me things. They tell me what I need to know. B3. G7. J10. Just, stuff like that.”

“Well it sounds like someone is telling you things,” said Stiles. “How else could you know the answers without looking or figuring it out yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

Stiles threw up his hands. “Well, maybe you should stop playing until you can figure out how you’re getting the answers?”

Walton’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to stop playing. I may not know how I get the answers, but I like playing. And I like winning.”

“Winning isn’t everything, young man,” Stiles countered. “And it’s not fair to your fellow students who are trying to play the right way.”

Walton’s mouth remained half-opened. The sun filtering through the glass had become the tired gold of late afternoon. They remained staring at each other so long Stiles could see the shadows lengthen in the room.

Then, Walton spoke.

“Why does your dick taste like toothpaste?”

Stiles jolted back in his chair. He had been a school principal for twenty years and heard staggering absurdities from students trying to explain themselves, and yet nothing had nearly induced whiplash in him until today. “Excuse me? What did you say?”

“I asked why your dick tastes like toothpaste,” Walton muttered.

“What…why would you ask me that?”

“Because,” Walton said, straightening in his chair, “it’s not just the answers I hear when I play.”

A hot needle buried in the back of Stiles’s neck. “What do you mean?”

“My opponent, Susie. I had to root through everything else to find the answers. There was a louder voice. She was wondering why your…she called it a ‘peter,’ tasted like toothpaste.” Walton shifted in his seat. “Why would she be wondering that?”

“What…no…that’s…where did you hear that!” Stiles demanded. “Who among you’s been spreading such lies?!”

“I hear lots of voices,” said Walton. “All their voices. Hers stands out though. It’s the only one that sounds like it hurts…”

“Get out!” Stiles roared, standing up. “Get out and never tell such horrible rumors again!”

“Or what!” Walton countered, standing up too. “You gonna skin me alive? Is that what you’d do to me?”


Walton nearly tripped over himself in his haste, but he shot one more venomous look behind him as he slipped between the crack of the closing door. His rapid footsteps faded down the hallway.

Stiles sank back into his chair, his clothes suddenly feeling like a nauseous, clammy cocoon. It was out. All the dark, depraved things he’d done with little Susie Coleman, things he’d tried convincing himself were bad dreams, or just moments of weakness where he gave into the Devil’s voice in his ear…

Still, something else scared him just as much as the unveiling of his crimes. “He’s bluffing,” he whispered to himself, removing his tie. “There’s no way he could have…” Susie had to have told him in private. And his friends were certainly helping him cheat. But how had Walton known that in that moment as he was relaying how Susie’s voice “hurt,” Stiles had expressed a silent threat to skin the little fucker alive?

Stiles remained in his cramped, overheated office nearly all night. He knew the day would have come where he’d have to answer for his sins. He just never expected it would have come from a fifth-grader.

* * * * * *

On Monday, Principal Stiles was noticeably absent from school. Vice Principal McElroy hadn’t heard from him all weekend. When Wednesday rolled around, the police were called to bust into his home. It didn’t take long to find him, on account of the smell. Robert Stiles was flat on his bed, his front stained with dried vomit, a half-empty bottle of Ibuprofen sitting on his nightstand. Preliminary analysis of the corpse determined he had taken his life in the early hours of the previous Saturday.

Once news of his death broke, so did the allegations of his sexual misconduct. Within the week, Stiles was written out of the conversation and forgotten among the student body. But in time the attention turned to fifth-grader Walton Becker when the connection between his meeting with Stiles and Stiles’s suicide became apparent.

Predictably, Walton couldn’t give a straight answer as to how he came to know of Stiles’s crimes. No one knew what he was talking about and simply assumed Susie Coleman had confided to him in secret. But the conversation went elsewhere when someone asked him a different question: not how, but why.

At this Walton looked at the interrogator with a blank, hardened stare. “I told him,” he said. “I like winning.”

* * * * * *

The current year.

Katie Watson felt an impending upheaval in her heart. She knew she was well in the meat of her opening statement.

“…quite simply put, ladies and gentlemen, after the incident, Gloria Ranford did not feel safe. Everywhere she went she reported hearing his voice in her head. She described a presence inside her that, in her words, ‘took up space.’ A presence, I might add, that only went away once the device was inserted into Mr. Zanotti’s frontal lobe.

“What happened between Ms. Ranford and Mr. Zanotti may have been consensual in the traditional sense. From an outside perspective everything they did together that night had been preapproved. None had explicitly pressured the other into doing something they did not want to do. But such conclusions can only be drawn from a surface level. In short, we have to look deep inside Ms. Ranford’s mind to determine the extent of what happened. And once we do that and find the truth, then we can broaden the net and determine what to decide for others like Mr. Zanotti…regardless of what they do.

“These abilities are unprecedented. Until fairly recently we have not known a world where these abilities existed, and we have built our society under the preconception that these abilities were impossible. I end my opening remarks with this: are we willing to twist what we already know to be true to accommodate for…for lack of a better term…such perversions?”

* * * * * *

December 19th, 2004.

It was two in the morning yet voices, machines, and lights blared like it was rush hour. Dr. Eric Dupont knew there was no real downtime in the ICU; injuries knew no time of day. It was also close to Christmas, when excessive travel and raving spirits often resulted in an influx of car accident victims. The doctor had seen many different arrangements of human bodies roll through the doors onto operating tables. Limbs bending the wrong way. Organs outside bodies. Skin the colors of the rainbow from bruising and burning. Most memorable was the one girl with a veritable mane of broken glass protruding from her neck. It may have seemed outlandish and cruel, but he had commended the first responders for the decision. The glass in her neck was the only thing that had kept the bleeding at bay long enough for them to save her life.

The next body that rolled in was in horrible shape as well, yet it was nothing special. The man had been practically scalped; the top of his head was wrapped with bloodstained gauze. As they prepped him for emergency surgery, Dupont was informed that the man’s hair, skin, and a sliver of his skull had been shaved clean off, but his brain had been spared. Saves us the trouble of neurosurgery, Dupont thought with an inkling of relief. Most pressing however was the man’s chest, which had collapsed and was blue around the diaphragm. Punctured lung, Dupont saw upon first glance. It was a very inopportune instance of it as well: too low for a tracheal tube, too traumatic for an air needle. They’d have to open him up.

Dupont’s expertise was expansive and his nerve was indomitable. But there was always one thing that got under his skin with each and every procedure he’d overseen. No one would have believed him and they might have revoked his privileges under suspicions of being unwell. Yet Dupont swore to himself that as he took apart and put back together his patients, he could hear their thoughts. The first time it happened with an unconscious patient he thought he was going insane, until the woman came around from the anesthesia and spoke to him in the exact same voice he had heard. Afterwards, as long as the patients’ brain functions were intact, he would continue to hear voices. When they were out cold, it would be a senseless, incoherent mess of words and noises. When they were writhing on the table in agony, it would be a chorus of screams, such hateful vocal explosions that blurred the doctor’s vision and threatened to sabotage his focus.

Dupont could only think of one term to describe what he had. And it was regrettable that in his field especially, mind-reading was not a blessing but a curse.

After putting the man under, the doctor and his fellow surgeons scissored into the man’s side. Any blood that poured forth was sponged away, and within a minute a chest tube was inserted to drain the cavity of pus and fluids. The orifice wide enough, the doctor opened him up further and cut his way through the adipose tissue until he finally got to the chest cavity. One of his floating ribs had been broken in the impact and was stuck in his left lung. They would have to remove it, patch up the wound, and set the rib back in place so it could heal.

Until now, Dupont had been resisting the urge to “listen out.” But with such a delicate procedure underway, he could not afford to put off his discomfort any longer. He brushed it aside and got to work.

Immediately thoughts came in. It was less a “thought” and more an unbroken guttural groan emanating from the man’s brain. Patients in his condition were generally less lucid and sensible; Dupont was at least appreciable of that.

As they snipped away more lung tissue to access the bone, the groan became choppy and rhythmic, like a bassline. Dupont quickened the pace, inserting another sponge to stem the bleeding. He’s trying to talk. Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me…

“One twenty. One twenty. One twenty.”

No…no…please shut up.

“One twenty.”

I’m trying to take a bone out of your lung. Please let me focus.

“Please let me one twenty.”

Dupont’s hand slipped and the lung tissue opened up further. He cursed to himself, inserting another gauze sponge in the wound.

“Dr. Dupont, what happened there?” one of his colleagues asked.

“Depth perception was off,” Dupont replied. “I got it patched. Nothing major.”

His colleague scowled behind his mask but went back to work. Jesus, Dupont thought. It was the first time a patient had ever actually responded to him via nothing but thoughts. As he maneuvered the rib out of the lung, he wondered worriedly if a full conversation would ensue.

“Feel funny. Much dark. Much dark all over.”

Keep calm, sir. We’re doctors. We’re bringing you back.

“Let me one twenty.”

What does that mean?

“One twenty. On the road. Almost made it.”

You were speeding? You wanted to hit one twenty?

“Let me one twenty.”

Dupont frowned as he neared full extraction of the bone. The man was a serial speeder…driving under the influence of risk. And he had nearly royally fucked himself over doing it. Dupont had a duty to heal whoever came through his doors, no matter how brainless they were…yet he still found himself rueing having to dedicate his time and energy saving the lives of such human scum. He couldn’t let that get in his way though. In the end, his standards were higher than that.

“They got in my way. I wanted one twenty.”

Who did?

“Minivan. Got in my way.”

 “Excuse me?!” Dupont blurted out loud. Every surgeon in the room stopped and looked up at him, their hands still clustered around the patient’s open flank.

“Dr. Dupont, what’s going on?”

“Are you okay?”

“Do you need to step out? We can handle this ourselves.”

“No, no,” Dupont asserted, trying to regain his composure. “I’m alright. Let me work.”

“Doctor Dupont, you opened another wound in the lung,” his scowling colleague reprimanded. “I’m now ordering you to leave the room.”

“You can’t oust me from my station!” Dupont protested. But the rest of the doctors were staring at him, their eyes speaking more clearly than words ever could for him to get out. “Very well,” he finally relented. “I just need to clear my head. I won’t be gone for long.”

He promptly departed the room, but clearing his head wasn’t on the agenda. Like a shark, he honed in on the first nurse he saw nearest to the operating room.

“Excuse me,” he said, peeling his mask off his face. “Can you tell me exactly what happened with that man?”

“It was terrible,” the nurse said, shaking her head. “You want to see the details? I can barely read them myself.” She thrust a clipboard into the doctor’s hands, then stood back and watched his reaction with her arms crossed.

Dupont scoured the incident report. Despite the piss-poor handwriting, everything confirmed what he had gathered from him and the patient’s little “chat.” Serial speeder with fourteen points on his license. Veered into the right lane on I-20 and struck the minivan at 114mph. His vehicle spun out and collided with the side wall; he was saved from outright decapitation via windshield by the steering column, which had resulted in the punctured lung. The minivan, on the other hand, hadn’t been so lucky. The precipice of a bridge had been just beyond the point of impact. At the time of writing, the bodies hadn’t even been recovered yet.

“Fucking…disgusting,” Dupont whispered, nearly crushing the paper in his hands. He understood hospitals often saw the lowest of society pass through their corridors…but that didn’t mean he had to like it. In fact, he despised it. Seeing people at their lowest, most vulnerable points had bestowed upon him an intense appreciation for mortality and courtesy for his fellow man…and to see the results of such callous recklessness splayed out before him…

He was tired. He was so damn tired of it.

But for the first time, a dark realization overcame him. It wasn’t a trauma surgeon’s prerogative to dispense justice upon their patients…yet Dupont realized he had an edge that no one else in the operating room boasted.

Time to turn this curse into a blessing.

“I’m good now,” he announced, reentering the room and applying a fresh mask.

“We just set the bone,” a doctor confirmed. “We’re patching up the lung tissue now. Make sure all those sponges are out.”

“I got that,” said Dupont, stepping in. “Monitor his vitals in the meantime.”

As the doctors stepped away, Dupont reached in and closed up the stitchings. He took care to remove the two sponges from the man’s lung.

“Wait, what’s that?” a doctor said, pointing at something in the orifice.

“Vascular tissue,” said Dupont.

“Check it again, that could be a blood-soaked sponge,” the doctor urged.

Dupont rolled his eyes and poked at the substance with his forceps. “Vascular tissue. It’s fine.”

And with that, the orifice was sealed for good and the patient was stabilized. Dr. Dupont lingered over the patient, however, under the pretense of further monitoring his vitals.

Why do you get to live? he thought.

“Excuse me?” the patient replied.

I asked, why do you get to live while they pull a cemetery’s worth of bodies out of burning slag?

“I wanted to go 120.”

You are vile. The only reason you’re alive right now is out of my sworn duty to heal whoever comes through this ward. If I weren’t bound by it, I’d have left you to bleed out on this table. You truly don’t have any regrets, do you? Does it kill you that you’re going to walk out of my ward on the backs of charred corpses?

“Fuck you.”

And right back at you. Though I think you’ll find in time that the only one who’s been “fucked” here, is you.

“You evil prick. I’ll get you! I’ll have you ruined! Whoever you are!”

No sir. After all, this is all just a side effect of the anesthesia. A bad dream. 

When the patient finally came around, he thanked Dr. Dupont and his team for saving his life, claiming he couldn’t remember anything after the crash. “That’s good,” said Dupont, giving an earnest smile and shaking his hand. “Just get plenty of rest and don’t strain your head or chest.”    

* * * * * *

After a few more days in the hospital, Eduardo Gonzales was discharged and sent home. His driver’s license was revoked for good, and with no friends or immediate family, he was forced to stay home until his first court date. He knew full well he had screwed up, and that the prosecutors were vying for a vehicular manslaughter charge. His only hope was that his lawyer Manuel would come through as he always had.

The stress was impalpable, and within a week of his discharge, Gonzales was complaining of difficulty breathing, chest pains, and impaired limb movement. Any attempts to call the hospital for clarification were met with dismissal. Just side effects from the surgery combined with the stress, it’ll go away by itself, the surgeon at the other end alleged. Gonzales swore the voice sounded familiar, like he had heard it sometime before coming around…but he couldn’t place who or where.

Two days after that, Gonzales was found dead on the living room floor, blue in the face and with horrid red bruising under his ribs. The autopsy confirmed he had been harboring a lung infection and pneumonia that ultimately drowned him from the inside. Further investigation revealed a patch of lung tissue forming a practical shroud of inflammation around his stitches. Within the inflamed tissue was a single surgical sponge.

But by that point, Dr. Eric Dupont was gone. With a seasoned trauma surgeon’s salary, disappearing was not out of the question. Wherever he was, he was probably enjoying the lonesome sanctity, with only his own thoughts to mull over. Despite the inexplicable circumstances of his “curse,” he took comfort in the notion that not even dead men could talk back.

* * * * * *

After Katie Watson had finished speaking, the defense took to the podium. The man was broad, tall, and silver-haired with a permanently sour expression. Definitely experienced, definitely hated losing. Watson held her breath and listened raptly.

“It’s a pleasure to be here, Justices, representing someone whom I truly believe is an outstanding individual,” he said. “Edmond Zanotti has a gift…a gift we have long known about, but not one we have studied extensively. It is my belief, along with the belief of pundits and experts around the world, that we should not be so hasty in condemning the actions of this man with such strong legalities.” He gestured with faux kindness to Watson. “With all due respect to Ms. Watson, at this point in the larger debate it is irresponsible and reactionary to use such brazen terms to describe what’s going on here.”

He shifted his glasses with an air of melodrama before continuing. “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything in my opening statement. Ms. Watson would have this court walk away believing mind-reading is a form of rape.”

The crowd behind them rose up in a gale of whispers. Watson closed her eyes and breathed through her nose. She had been hoping they’d get to that part later in the case, during the counterarguments, but this man wanted to slit the jugular in the opening remarks. Alright then, if that’s how we’re playing…

“…quite simply put,” he was stating, “it is unwise to evoke such terminology to castigate Mr. Zanotti for an action we scarcely understand. If Ms. Watson wishes to condemn what happened between Mr. Zanotti and Ms. Ranford as ‘rape,’ and by extension any interaction between people like Mr. Zanotti and others as such…well, that certainly is a tall order. And I hope that after today, Mr. Zanotti does not become Ground Zero for this bomb that’s just been set off.”

Without a second look at her, he went back to his seat next to Edmond Zanotti, who was sitting with his head down, eyes closed, and a slight smile upon his face. Unfazed, Watson stood up to deliver her first arguments. If the defense wanted to take the gloves off, she would gladly follow suit.

* * * * * *

October 23rd, 2016. It was the day of Amber Nixon’s first therapy session…not a day she was particularly looking forward to. She was only going on the insistence of her parents, who were tired of the constant excuses, the self-imposed barriers, the nonsensical explanations of why they couldn’t communicate effectively with their daughter.

Ever since her thirteenth birthday, it was as if Amber had become a different person. Voices that weren’t hers constantly bombarded her brain. At first she thought she was going crazy, until she realized people around her would often repeat the exact phrase she had heard, directly afterward. The only way she could describe the phenomenon was “mind-reading.” Of course, saying it out loud sounded ridiculous, and everyone around her dismissed it as cries for attention. After all, she was a thirteen-year-old girl, hopped up on hormones and emotionally scrambled. Obviously, she was just attention-seeking, right?

Fidgeting in the waiting room, her only consolation was the fact that at least the therapist would be paid to listen to her. They would have forty-five minutes of confidentiality together, forty-five minutes that no one else in her life would have granted her.

Amber stared at the heavyset woman across from her, who was buried in a magazine. Amber didn’t like invoking her “abilities,” but the room was empty and silent otherwise. She focused, imagining her eyes were power drills boring through the woman’s skull.

“I eat because he makes me eat. I eat because society makes me eat. Eating makes me feel loved…food doesn’t judge…he judges, society judges…”

Amber pulled out and shuddered. She didn’t need reminding that body image might serve as another debilitating problem down the road.

A door opened and a tall, gracile woman stepped out. “Amber Nixon?” she called out. Reluctantly, Amber rose from her chair and followed her into the hallway.

The therapist’s office was just off to the left. It was spacious and cozy with a Japanese influence, smelling of something Amber assumed was rose incense. Amber seated herself on the charcoal-colored sofa, and the therapist sat across from her, a notepad placed on her lap.

“Hello, Amber. I am Dr. Hirota,” she explained. “How are you today?”

“Not good,” Amber admitted. “I don’t know about this…”

“Well I’ll tell you what, Amber,” said Hirota. “I’ve seen through folks of all ages in my thirty years as a therapist, including dozens of young women your age. I don’t just understand what girls your age are going through…it’s my passion.”

“I don’t know if what’s happening is even a ‘girl my age’ thing though,” Amber protested.

“Your parents tell me that you’re making up stories about voices in your head,” said Hirota.

“Of course they said that,” said Amber, looking away. “They don’t want to really talk about it.”

“I can imagine that,” Hirota replied.

“They think I’m just crying for attention,” Amber recalled. “I mean, I guess I am, technically, but I want it to stop…I know I’ll stop bitching about it once I can’t hear them anymore.”

“Do you think they’ll go away?”

“I don’t know. Even when I’m not trying they just seem to creep in…”

“Do you hear voices now?”

“No, just yours.”

“Just mine?”

“Yes, but…” Amber looked up and her jaw dropped. Hirota’s gaze was averted and she was absorbed in her notepad. There was no inclination that she had even acknowledged Amber.

Without looking up or moving her lips, Hirota’s voice came forth. “Let me just say I know already you are one special young lady.”

“How…” Amber’s mouth hadn’t opened either but her words were clear as day. “How are you doing this?”

“And here I thought I was the only one,” Hirota conveyed. “How egocentric of me. This is extraordinary…if you and I are gifted like this, surely there must be others around the world.”

“No wonder you’re a therapist,” Amber thought.

“Very astute,” Hirota silently smiled. “I will admit I’m rather divisive among my patients. As it turns out, what they tell therapists isn’t always what’s in their heads. I, however, always know what’s in their heads.” Hirota tapped her temple with a wink. “Thus, I tell them what they need to hear.”

Amber smiled back. “It’s good to know someone actually understands.”

“So let me ask you this,” Hirota thought, walking towards her bookshelf. “What do you think of it now?”

Amber paused. Thoughts ran through her head, but she suddenly realized that Dr. Hirota could hear them. She almost didn’t want to think…but then that thought popped in her head too…it was upsetting to her, the notion that she wasn’t safe from Dr. Hirota or anyone else like her…and for that matter, no one was safe from her

“All that’s a lot to unpack,” Hirota conveyed. “The implications of there being more of us are staggering. You have a gift, Ms. Nixon. You could do great things…and when we find enough of us…we could change the world.”

“No,” Amber pleaded wordlessly. “I don’t care that I have a gift…it’s all too much. I don’t want to hear voices and I don’t want to look inside people’s minds. I just want to be normal.”

“I don’t think you have a choice at the moment,” Hirota replied.

“All this time people have been treating me like there’s something wrong with me,” Amber countered. “They won’t think any better once this ‘mind-reading’ thing gets out. I appreciate you understanding me, Dr. Hirota…but I don’t want to be a part of this. You can go find others like us if you want. I’m glad I was able to help you realize…but now, no more.”

Hirota stared at her for a long moment. Then she audibly sighed. “You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” she said out loud. “I respect your decision. But…if you’ll allow me, I think you and I can work together to ease your burden.”

Amber’s eyes went wide. “How?”

“Simple mental exercises,” Hirota chirped. “You continue coming back here under the guise of typical therapy sessions, and together we can help put your abilities to rest. I’ve had decades to refine my abilities…and a crop that always remains fresh.”

Amber hesitated. She wasn’t sure she liked the “crop” metaphor…but then she cleared her mind fearing that Hirota heard her. The doctor, however, gave no indication. “Sure…okay.”

Hirota clapped her hands together. “Splendid. I wouldn’t put you through that today…we’ve uncovered a lot already. But we still have thirty-five minutes. So…what other problems are you having?”

* * * * * *

For the following two months, Amber and Dr. Hirota met on a weekly basis, the former telling her parents that they were slowly working out her “attention issues.”

Their sessions were intense. Amber would be mentally coaxed into a trance, until all of reality was a dark, noisy void for her, filled with chaotic sounds and the voices of Hirota and herself.

“Repeat after me. ‘A horrible darkness swells.’”

“A horrible darkness swells.”

“‘His warm hand slips from my grasp.’”

“His warm hand slips from my grasp.”

“‘All I know is blood and cold.’”

“All I know is blood and cold.”

“‘Blood of my blood.’”

“Blood of my blood.”

“‘Cold from my choice.’”

“Cold from my choice.”

“‘I wander this plane, a sightless wind…’”

“I wander this plane, a sightless wind…”

“‘Never to look back on the light I knew.’”

“Never to look back on the light I knew.”

“Thirty more times. Repeat after me. ‘A horrible darkness swells.’”

“A horrible darkness swells…”

On the ninth week, sitting across from each other, Hirota folded her hands on her lap and stared intently at Amber. The latter merely stared back, uncomfortable. “Is everything alright?” she asked.

Hirota closed her eyes and smiled. “You didn’t hear that?”

“No…” Realization dawned on Amber. “No…no I didn’t!”

Hirota clapped her hands together. “Wonderful…I think it’s safe to say we have completely suppressed your psychic sense. How do you feel now?”

“I feel so much lighter,” said Amber. “I only hear my own thoughts!”

“And I cannot,” said Hirota. “Ms. Nixon, I’m so glad you allowed me to follow through with this…your participation in this little experiment has taught me so much about these abilities for when I go public. Thank you…thank you. You may not want a part in it, but you have contributed so much to the pursuit of knowledge.”

“Glad to have helped,” said Amber, smiling.

Unbeknownst to Amber, as Dr. Hirota smiled back, she was mentally harboring her doubts.

* * * * * *

The two went their separate ways as the years passed. Invigorated by young Amber Nixon’s sessions, Dr. Sandra Hirota orchestrated a summit to present her findings to the world stage. She embarked on a crusade, uniting international citizens to test their abilities in front of veritable panels of scientists and specialists. And, after years of trials and experimentations (including at least a half dozen autopsies), the world was forced to conclude that a minute percentage of the population did indeed possess “mind-reading” abilities.

Hirota became a pioneer in the emerging field of neurotelepathy. The following decades saw her constantly on the move, publishing papers, participating in studies, buried up to her neck in her own reputation. She became something of a mythic figure…omnipotent, omniscient, unreachable. Too caught up in her own sweeping tide to slow up and settle down in life.

Despite her mounting fame, however, there was a tumor on her legacy. While Dr. Sandra Hirota rose to international stardom, Amber Nixon had descended into black, icy turmoil.

At eighteen, the voices returned…but they were her own. By that time, Amber had been long convinced that her abilities had been squelched for good. Others’ thoughts hadn’t intruded upon her for over five years, but then a new problem showed its ugly face.

Her own brain was rebelling against her. Her own voice insisted on things that made no sense. Internal arguments about her sanity raged unprompted in her own head. Somehow it had to have been connected to their sessions all those years ago…but she lacked the terminology to describe her condition. For all she knew, she was truly devolving into a schizophrenic.

With her supposed relapse, Amber’s prospects plummeted. Her academic career collapsed. Her relationship with her parents, newly strained when the voices returned, shattered. It showed in her physical appearance…she became gaunt and tired and reduced to little more than a skeleton. To think she had read the mind of a heavyset woman years earlier and worried about getting fat…now she could nestle a finger between her ribs.

At the end of her rope, crashing in a friend’s mother’s basement, trying to ignore the stream of involuntary thoughts that insisted she was cured and just hearing things, she used the last of her phone battery to peruse Dr. Sandra Hirota’s research.

The files were public domain and easily accessible, but scrolling on a tiny screen through poorly-formatted PDFs while battling the voices in her head was a merciless task. There were walls of text, incomprehensible diagrams, graphs, statistics…nothing amid the mess stood out to her.

Then, buried in a table of contents on what felt like the hundredth search result was the title “Case Aberrations.” Her eyes ached from staring at screens, but Amber nearly poked a hole through her phone clicking it.

Under the Case Aberrations section, there was the subheading “Veiled Suggestions.” Her heart pounding, Amber scrolled down and squinted to read Hirota’s text.

“One of our first discoveries was the ability for neurotelepaths to exchange meaningful dialogue. While this was long assumed to be a facet of mind-reading, a remarkable subset I pioneered early in my career was the allowance for ‘veiled suggestions.’ The implications for this ability are as grand as they are troubling, but in my first practices I successfully convinced a patient to suppress their mind-reading abilities by engaging in what they assumed was a full conversation. The reality was, however, the patient was not conversing with me at all. Everything the patient assumed was said by them was in fact myself, having connected with and, for lack of better terms, ‘assimilated’ with the ‘voice in their head’ they had grown to be familiar with. In these sessions, their own mental voice was an impostor. They remained dead silent throughout the sessions, having the suggestion hammered over and over again by myself, staging a fake conversation with them.”

And in that moment, Amber’s phone died.

Dread and betrayal kept Amber from sleeping that night. Hirota’s “treatment” had failed after half a decade unbeknownst to her…failed catastrophically. And to have her brain poisoned to hear others’ thoughts filtered through her own voice…one word seemed appropriate.


She wanted to ruin Dr. Hirota. She resented being the doctor’s unwitting guinea pig. She cursed herself for not involving herself with the doctor’s work when she could. She was too afraid at the time, too young and uncertain…

Tracking down Hirota to confront her would have been impossible. Amber attempted to work her way up the ladder, firstly to prove that she was a mind-reader to begin with. But no one believed her. When sitting down for a clinical trial, the voices she heard imposed doubt. At that point she had no idea whether she was hearing others’ thoughts, or if she truly was going mad. And amid the grappling with her own mind, she consistently failed to meet the specialists’ threshold for neurotelepathic abilities. Landing a spot in a trial only became more difficult after that. Within weeks, Amber was essentially blacklisted from future sessions.

With the emergence of mind-readers, there was a disproportionately high number of attention-seekers, folks who claimed to possess neurotelepathy for the sake of reaping clout and infamy. They were weeded out with cutting efficiency. Only true mind-readers joined the ranks of Dr. Sandra Hirota’s specials. The rest were cast out into obscurity. And Amber Nixon simply disappeared among the chaff.

After all, they just thought she was crying for attention.

* * * * * *

As Katie Watson stepped up to the stand once more, she realized she was ambivalent to the fact that at this paramount summit, the Godmother herself, Dr. Sandra Hirota, hadn’t shown up. Perhaps she was still too busy to appear in person. Or maybe she was ashamed that this whole debacle had resulted from her studies and legacy. Either way, Watson found it easy to brush off as she began her counterarguments.

“As you all have heard, my opponent has decided to invoke the meat of this case early on in what I perceive as an attempt to sensationalize and discredit my argument,” she declared. “I would like to inform the court that that classifying mind-reading as a form of rape is exactly what I intend.”

The whispers welled up again, but Watson pushed forward. “Let us examine the fallout from the incident between Ms. Ranford and Mr. Zanotti, then. After their tryst, his voice never left her head. Memories that Ms. Ranford thought had been stymied years prior had been dredged up…memories that have reopened scars in her mind. Mr. Zanotti had no right to invoke such traumatic memories during their encounter. If he hadn’t been a mind-reader, he would have never known of Ms. Ranford’s baggage, and their night would have proceeded as anticipated.

“But knowing of Ms. Ranford’s trauma wasn’t enough for Mr. Zanotti. Instead, he enacted a subset of neurotelepathy described in Dr. Hirota’s research as ‘veiled suggestion.’ To satisfy his own hunger, he forced Ms. Ranford to not only relive those memories…but to comply with them, by disguising his own thoughts as her own ‘inner voice.’ Under the influence of what she assumed was her own voice, Ms. Ranford did things and performed acts that she otherwise would have never engaged in. In the moment, Ms. Ranford thought she was just being bold. But as time went on, as the memories refused to go away, and her income and social life were affected, she realized it wasn’t as clear-cut as trying to be daring in the bedroom.

“I’m sure we’re all aware of Ms. Ranford’s cranial scans, having been leaked to the media some weeks ago. There was an overall reduction of brain volume, with particular damage to the hippocampus and amygdala, parts of the brain responsible for memory recollection and emotions. All these occurrences are symptomatic of PTSD, and subsequent clinical trials only further enforce this diagnosis.

“In short, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Zanotti took Ms. Ranford’s mind, a haven of her personality and darkest suppressed memories, and turned it into a glorified diary for him to abuse. Whereas in traditional rape physical sanctity is compromised and taken advantage of…in this case, it was her mental sanctity that was sabotaged. To reach inside someone’s mind, the one place beyond the constraints of physicality…is a much deeper and more troubling violation than we give credit for.”

* * * * * *

Katie Watson’s speech had left the room stunned with silence. She knew she had struck a chord with the crowd. She could almost imagine the gears turning in their heads. Ah, if only I were a mind-reader myself…

Her opponent stood up again and strode briskly to the podium. He appeared slightly flustered, but not enough to show signs of cracking. Wiping a stray strand of gray hair off his forehead, he delved into his own arguments.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he started. “Amid the dirty details of Mr. Zanotti and Ms. Ranford’s encounter, there are a few key elements we must consider before we go about branding mind-reading as ‘rape.’

“There is one thing that qualifies to Ms. Ranford’s situation that cannot be present in other cases of rape. And that is free will. Ms. Ranford was not drugged, was not pressured or forced upon, and she certainly was not ‘hypnotized,’ as some media pundits like to allege. Everything Ms. Ranford did that night was of her own free will, following what she took to be the ‘voice in her head.’ Nothing would have prevented her from obeying that voice, except her own decision to ignore it. Here is a thought experiment: if Mr. Zanotti made the ‘veiled suggestion’ in Ms. Watson’s head to kill me right now where I’m standing, and Ms. Watson acted upon it, whose fault would it be really? Mr. Zanotti’s for merely suggesting it? Or Ms. Watson’s for actually obeying and stabbing me in the throat?

“As for the notion that accessing her deepest memories also constitutes rape, really, let’s think about it. Ms. Watson’s ‘diary’ analogy actually fits quite well here. We’re humans, we keep secrets. And we keep them under various degrees of protection…journals, safes, hard drives, and yes, the recesses of our own minds. But ‘where we keep them’ ultimately doesn’t matter when the secrets get out. And what do offenders do with these secrets? On the back of larceny, there’s blackmail, harassment, slander…but rape? In the bigger picture, I fail to see how this is any different.”

Watson drew in a breath. The defense was attempting a compromise…to convince the jurors that while Zanotti did not commit rape, he did perform some other crime anyway. It was the equivalent of granting them table scraps while denying the red meat. And Zanotti would be thrown under the bus…just not to the magnitude the prosecution wanted. Hell must have overflow spots for defense attorneys, Watson thought.

As the defense concluded, Watson realized the only way to top his stunt was to fight fire with fire.

* * * * * *

“What is your name?” Katie Watson asked.

“Gloria Ranford,” the young, paunchy woman sitting up front stated.

“Ms. Ranford, we in the court appreciate your bravery in coming forward with your traumatic story. If you can, please recount what happened the night you and Mr. Zanotti met.”

Ranford took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Slivers of tears glistened between her eyelids. She wiped them away before taking another breath.

“We met at a bar…we walked in at the exact same time. Edmond…or, Mr. Zanotti, looked at the bartender and said he’d have an old-fashioned, and to get…his words, a ‘Grey Goose martini for the lady.’ That’s when I knew he had first read my mind…but he was talkative, and he charmed me. We started talking. He told me about his abilities, how he had known what he was at a young age, and how he had met Dr. Hirota and shook her hand, ‘newly introduced as the world’s next mind-reader.’ His words, again.

“I knew he was interested in me. And the more we drank, the more I became interested too. He said he wasn’t looking for a soulmate…he said it was a Saturday night and that I was the kind of woman who knew how to have fun. I asked him if he was sure. He tapped his head and said, ‘I always knew.’”

She shuddered, wiping her face again before continuing.

“What happened between the bar and his place is a blur, unfortunately…but I remember being in his room, undressing. We got close to each other, our mouths were touching…and he whispered something to me. He called me ‘Little Pumpkin.’ At first I felt shock…shock that he had dared to do that, to figure out what…what he used to call me. My father.

“But in that moment, the shock just seemed to…seep away. And I felt compelled to whisper back to him. My conscience told me to let go, to follow through with it and see where it took me. I whispered back. ‘I am yours, Daddy.’

“Now I know that it wasn’t truly my conscience…if only I knew what was going on then, I’d have gotten the Hell out of there…”

Her voice became strained. “We got on the bed. …We started. …Then he told me to turn over, to get on my hands and knees. I don’t do that. I’ve never done that before. Because that’s what he used to make me do. But then he said he’d put a blanket over my head so I didn’t have to see…just like…just like he used to do…my conscience said to do it, that I had to get over my inhibitions if I wanted to become a…a real woman…”

Ranford broke down entirely on the podium. Her sobs echoed sharply along the walls, a thousand times louder in the grave silence.

“Whenever you’re ready to continue, Gloria,” Watson whispered.

Ranford nodded, practically scrubbing her face on her sleeve. “Anyway…that happened…I did it…he kept calling me ‘Little Pumpkin,’ I kept calling him…you know…and then…he said I was ‘acting up.’ Just like he used to do. The pencil was on the nightstand. And he said, ‘Far be it from me to hurt my little girl. This is something you’ll have to realize yourself.’

“My conscience…at that point, it was me, as that same scared little girl again…not knowing what was going on, only preoccupied with pleasing my father and making him go away…he told me all this in my voice, remember…

“I told myself to grab the pencil…and…”

She couldn’t bring herself to finish the words. Instead, she averted her eyes and pulled her sleeve up from her forearm.

Murmurs erupted in the crowd. Peppering her skin were six half-healed punctures, eerily reminiscent of bullet holes…or stab wounds from something long and narrow.

“After that night he left me alone,” Ranford continued, her voice strengthening. “But I knew he was close by, keeping a tab on me. I kept hearing him. He engaged my conscience in debates. Tried telling me I had done well. That I had become a ‘real woman.’

“I couldn’t live with the guilt and the pain. That’s how I lost my job, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I lost the ability to determine whose voice was in my head. Everything about who I was had been damaged…beyond repair, as the physicians would attest. And after five months, enough was enough. I spoke out. A journalist covered my story. And now…here we are.

“I know there are some here today who wouldn’t consider what happened between us as ‘rape.’ But take it from my perspective. I’ve had all this time to dwell on what happened to me. Sure, everything that happened was technically consensual. Sure, I may have acted according to free will or whatever. But one thing was different…the experience. At the end of the day, Mr. Zanotti had a different experience than I did. His was garnered from the assaults on my mind. And mine?”

Ranford took another breath. “…Mine was a lie. A lie that damaged me. …It was rape. Plain and simple.”

She held up her hand to signal she was done.

“Thank you, Ms. Ranford,” Watson said softly. Ranford made her way back to her seat.

As Watson sat down next to her, she acknowledged to herself that Ranford’s testimony, while powerful, was also a pure appeal to emotion. She knew pathos appeals could be effective, but they had a reputation of being cheap and manipulative. Yet Watson hoped that even the most hardened soul would be moved by her story…and, ultimately, convinced. After all, it was all part of her job. And all part of shedding light on such a controversial matter.

The defense rose up to speak. Watson sat and listened. The case would go on. And one way or another, justice would be served.

Rating: 7.00/10. From 3 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson

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