As so often happens, a story idea gets into my head from an odd source. An online discussion of the Romance Genre, and what it means to be Romance, being talked about by Ursula Vernon ( @ursulav on Twitter) morphed into her talking about the weird way that Science Fiction and Fantasy get mixed and matched based on odd qualities. And made a comment of, “Did You Hear What They Said About Our Marlene’s Telepathy? And who Grandma left the good china to?”
Which immediately planted a story seed. Free story, since the title is shamelessly stolen.
Green. The conversation happening downstairs, the one I was intently NOT listening to, was green. Strands of red and yellow, but mostly green. Gossip.
That’s the best I can explain how thoughts FEEL. Perhaps if I were musically inclined, and could tell you the difference by sound between a G major and a C minor third, I might describe them as pitches or octaves. If I cared more about food than, tastes great, more filling, I might talk about the sour and bitter and umami of brains as I brush across them. Or maybe if I worked with my hands more, I’d feel thoughts as smooth, rough, gritty, oily.
I’m not an artist though, and thoughts are colors, with a few specific exceptions. Green is gossip, that odd combination of greedy longing for what others have and do, and scandalized relief that it didn’t happen to you. Red is anger, yellow concern. Happiness is a bright pink and purple streak, and it wasn’t until I was taught the birds and the bees via random memories running through my mother’s mind when I was seven that I realized what the bright white bursts that would sometimes come from my parent’s side of the house at night were. The memories were bad enough, I’m just glad that my room was far enough away from theirs that I never heard them. To be clear, I wasn’t feeling the actual emotion. I’m not a telempath. It was more like body language, but of thoughts. I could still hear TONE at a distance
Distance being exactly what was being discussed below me, in conversation that I was failing badly at NOT listening. Because those exceptions I mentioned? One of them kept coming up. Me. I can tell you exactly what it feels like when someone is thinking or talking about me. Maybe if I was a bit more self absorbed, it would be pleasant. But I’m not, and it’s not. Ever walk into a room at the wrong moment, and dozens of eyes are staring at you? Or sit on a park bench, no one else around, but you could SWEAR that someone was staring at you? Every hear your name called out from a distance by a voice you ALMOST recognize. Or feel a twitch in your leg like your phone was in your pocket, vibrating, even if it’s not in your pocket, with the absolute certainty that someone just texted you?
All of it. All those feelings and more, when people are thinking about me. Or talking about me. And Aunt Patty just couldn’t stop talking about me.
“Distance? Really. They made the determination based on DISTANCE?” Aunt Patty’s red words broadcast from her mind just as surely as her voice boomed from her mouth, an Irish Whisper my Mom calls it. Four people all talking together acted as amplifiers, their own words in their minds being rebroadcast a moment later by the other three hearing and processing. Impossible to ignore, I finally decided, rolling over and stuffing a pillow over my eyes and ears to minimize stimulation.
Blue came her husband, my uncle Jeffrey. The sparkling blue of a bucket of water, drawn from a ‘Well, actually’. “It’s the cube square law, love. Very scientific.” I found myself wishing telekinesis was real so I could throw a cucumber sandwich at him.
“No Jeffrey, that’s volume. You’re thinking the inverse square law, like gravity.” Deeper blue, my mother educating. It still amazes me that depth of shade can tell me so much, whether someone is passing information along because they want the information to be known, or telling someone something in order to prove they know it . “And yes, exactly. Marlene can’t hear more than 20 feet away, and words appear to her suddenly as soon as she’s in range, as strong as if she was next to the person.” There was a pause, and a tinge of pink and silver that let me know she was taking a deep sip of her tea. Even being gossiped about as if I wasn’t the telepathic equivalent of sitting at the table being talked about I third person, I still smiled into my pillow. I worked hard on finding that tea blend for Mom, and I was very happy that she took so much pleasure from the chocolatey Earl Grey. I just had to rebox it when it arrived before giving it to her, she’d never drink it if she knew it was named after a fictional telempath.
That was a word they taught me at CI. Empath means able to read emotions from signals. Like empathy. Almost everyone is empathic. Being able to sense emotions, through your mind, at a distance, is TELEMPATHY. Telempathy of course, since emotions aren’t proper brainwaves, is magic, not science. And I’m not a telempath. I swear. The colors I feel aren’t truly emotions, more like, tone of voice, but of thoughts.
Yellow and red tinged the returning blue, her mind focusing on the conversation. “According to the Cricket Institute, if her telepathy was science based, she would have a, a strong signal, as it were, when next to someone, and the feeling of their words would weaken with distance, a measurable decrease that follows the inverse square law.”
A wash of mishmash colors, confusion warring with set beliefs. “So, as the distance doubles, the strength is three times weaker?”
“Almost love.” Pumpkin orange. I could almost feel her desire to pat her husband patronizingly on the head. Almost. I’m not an telempath. “As the distance is squared, the strength is unsquared. De squared? Square rooted?”
“That works Patty, square rooted. But Marlene’s ability doesn’t follow that law.” Red flared brighter in my mother’s mind. “So CI says she’s not a scientific telepath, but a magical one.”
I screamed into the pillow, and chucked it across the room. I popped up to sitting, done with being spoken about. Also, I wanted a cup of that tea.
I looked over at where the pillow landed, and at the ears flickering in irritation a few feet away. “Oh come off it Skeeve, I knew you were there, it was nowhere near close.” He languidly opened and closed his one good eye, then went back to licking his paw, wiping it over it ears. I pulled on boots, grabbed my purse and phone. The one bright side to moving limbs is that it makes it easier to not focus on a conversation, so I missed the next few moments as I skipped out of my room and down the stairs.
“I mean, being a magical telepath isn’t a BAD thing. There’s nothing wrong with magic, it’s just, she can’t…” I heard Mom’s voice echoing up the stairs, a Pollock of colors, sadness, resignation.
“It means I can’t get a job using my abilities.” The four jumped as I came hopping around the bend in the stairs, looking down on them. “Only ‘scientific telepaths’ with provable and measurable limits can get Cricket certification. If it’s not hard science, than it might as well be a fantasy, is what they told me.”
I stopped at the table and let them collect themselves a minute. I curtseyed to each in turn. “Good afternoon Aunt Betty, Uncle Jeffrey, Grandma Joane.” I bent over and kissed my mother on the forehead, the tea in her cup wafting into my nose. “Good afternoon Mom. May I have some tea?”
She smiled, and poured a cup. Grandma Joane spoke up for the first time, the muted tones of brown and green brightening. “So, you’re not disappointed about the loss of guaranteed job?”
I shrugged, and took the cup from Mom. “Thank you Mom.” I took a sip, rolling the deep velvet on my tongue. I wonder what it be like to taste thoughts as types of tea. “Not really Grandma. I didn’t have a certification and guarantee before, so I didn’t lose anything. And besides, the kind of jobs you can get as a Cricket certified telepath? Tricking people into thinking of hidden information, acting as a spy for a company looking for disloyalty and waste? No thank you. I don’t know what I want to do after college yet, but it’s not THAT.”
Everyone nodded approvingly, although colors and random splashes of words made it clear not everyone agreed. Waste. So sad. Poor dear doesn’t know what she wants. The random thoughts floated, less powerful for not being vocalized.
I delicately took a bacon fluffin from the plates arrayed on the Lazy Katey, Ladies Don’t GRAB, I could hear Mom say in her mind as I mentally repeated the oft drilled lesson myself. Our eyes met for a moment, the sparkle in hers showing she knew I knew.
I took a bite, letting the colors of thoughts slow their swirling around me. “Honestly, the part that upsets me is the inconsistency. I met almost every other test for being scientific, but they get stuck on this one.” I took another, larger bite of fluffin, letting the pancake and meat mingle.
Jeffrey raised a finger. “Wait, what other tests?”
I chewed hurriedly, trying to swallow so I could answer, when I stopped dead. Grandma Joane lit up in the darkest blue I had ever seen. Yes, I understand that lit up in dark sounds weird. It’s my brain, deal with it. She raised a fist, popping out fingers one by one, dark red nail polish and rings flashing.
“One, distance. We already discussed that. Two, detectable waves. A scientific telepath will show changes to their brainwaves that partially mimic the person they are listening to. A magical one won’t. In addition, there are areas of the brain that show activity while the telepath is, well, telepathing, meaning physical structures are involved. ” She paused, and glanced up at me.
I remembered the testing, the graphs showing my mind matching the technician, the bright flares on the scanner as specific wrinkles in my brain caught fire, electromagnetically speaking. “Yes Grandma, my brain does the wave.” Mom snorted in laughter.
Grandma nodded curtly. “Three, languages. A scientific telepath will hear words thought in other languages as the sounds the person would have spoken. If they don’t know the language, they won’t understand. Many magical telepaths translate automatically.”
She paused, and looked at me again. I swallowed. She knew more about telepathy than I knew she did. That was, unsettling. Sprechen sie Deutsch? “No Grandma, I don’t sprechen the Deutsch, although everyone knows what that means, c’mon.”
She nodded, smiling, and continued. Nothing in her head but the words she said. She had the kind of control the technicians at Cricket did. I realized suddenly that while I felt her colors, I hadn’t really heard her earlier.
“Four, emotions. Emotional response is a function of more than just brainwaves, so a telempath is magical by definition.”
“And I’m not a telempath.” Okay, I said that really firmly. Defensively even.
” Five, shielding. Since they work with waves of some kind, certain materials will block their ability, and certain devices can provide a hum that makes it harder to hear.”
Blue faded to a bright grey, her face paling to match. Her counting fingers went limp and her free hand clutch her hair. “Which is the other test you failed…”
Everyone else was staring hard at me now. “Yes, you could say I failed it. Their blocking material didn’t work for me. How… wait, that’s right, you wear wigs. Is…” I started to laugh, half nervously, half from real humor, as she tugged her hair, shifting it slightly in place. “You have thought shielding in your rug? Seriously?”
“RUG! How dare you.. how did you know! I wasn’t thinking about it, you couldn’t have known I wear a wig” WHO DOESN‘T KNOW! The thought hit me from three directions in unison.
I took a long slow sip of tea and smiled. “Grandma Dee told me last summer when I spent a week with her. She told me LOTS of things she thought I should know.” I finished the last nibble of fluffin. “Thank you for the tea Mom.” I kissed her on the forehead again, and walked towards the kitchen with my cup. A flurry of thoughts swung my way, a kaleidoscope of colors. Hell, of emotions. Maybe I am a telempath. Magical is just a codeword for, we can’t control. I stopped, and turned.
“Actually, now that I think about it, distance is just a red herring.” Grandma Joane looked at me with a touch of fear, purple tinging her presence. She definitely knew way too much about telepathy. I found myself wondering for the first time just what she used to do before retiring. “It’s the shielding that really damned me getting a certification.” LANGUAGE! I threw Mom a hairy eyeball, then looked back at Grandma Joane. “Like I said, it’s provable and measurable LIMITS. If you don’t have them, if they can’t defend against you, they won’t certify you. Interesting. Well. Mom? I’m going to head over to Jamal’s, okay?”
Mom nodded weakly. I turned, stopped, and spun again, looking at Aunt Patty. “Why yes, Grandma Dee DID in fact tell me who she was leaving the good china to!” The bright flashes of color followed me nearly halfway down the block.