Episode 1: “The Gift”

This gift of mine emerged shortly after I was in a car accident at the age of ten.

Cara was driving; we were on our way home from shopping at a mall in the city, thirty miles from home. We were crossing an intersection just five minutes from the house when the guy ran a red light at sixty-five miles an hour in a thirty-five mile per hour zone. I spent twenty-four hours in the ICU with a severe head injury, and then three days recovering inpatient. Cara was hospitalized for two days before she was released with a cast on her broken arm and instructions to rest at home. So naturally she didn’t leave the hospital. Since she was on medical leave from work, it didn’t matter.

Mom and Dad both stayed with me when I was in the ICU, but it was only two days before Dad’s presence was required back at the field office. Mom was a teacher. The day I went home was a Friday, and she had taken almost a week off work. When the weekend passed without incident, Cara convinced Mom to go back to work, promising that she would look after me while we both recovered. Jared, her husband, had gone back to work once Cara had been released, and Kelley’s routine at the daycare returned to normal. Cara would have been home alone while she recuperated anyway, so instead she just came to our house in the morning after dropping Kelley off.

Anyway, it started off as a quiet week; but on Wednesday, it started to get interesting.

I’d convinced my mom to let me sleep in my own bed, but she insisted I leave my bedroom door open; as her room was straight across the hall, she also left her door open so she could hear me if I had any problems in the night. I didn’t, of course, but I didn’t sleep very well either, which led to my waking early with my mom when she got up to get ready for school. I’d taken to sitting in one of the recliners in the living room while she packed up her school bag and made her breakfast; then she sat in the other recliner and watched the morning news while she ate and I dozed in and out of sleep.

Now, the reason I hadn’t been sleeping well was because I kept hearing night sounds. The first couple of nights, they just sounded like crickets, or something rustling in the grass outside, or the house creaking as it cooled through the night. But then it began to sound like whispering. And Wednesday morning I was startled awake by what I was certain was a voice.

While my mom watched the news, I stared silently into space trying to decide if the voice I’d heard was my imagination or a dream.

“Goodbye, Sweetie.” My mom was leaning down to kiss my cheek. “Call me if you need anything.”

I nodded, feeling dazed. Cara was already there, and my mom had finished her breakfast and turned off the TV without me noticing.

“Bye, Mom.” Cara shut the door behind her and came to sit in the other recliner, which was separated from mine by the matching leather couch. “How are you feeling this morning?”

Please say you’re sleeping better.

I blinked. “I’m… fine.”

“Same as yesterday? Any better?” I’m so worried about you.

“Um… a – a little better.” She was still watching me cautiously. I swallowed. “Please don’t worry about me.”

Cara frowned. “What?”

“You’re worrying about me. I don’t want you to worry. I’m fine.”

But how are you sleeping? “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I slept a lot better last night.”

That was when she visibly let out the deep breath she’d been holding.

I looked down at my hands, then back up at my sister again. She was picking up her book from the end table as she pushed the recliner back and the feet up. I looked back down and blinked, my mind racing. What had just happened?

 

My talent expanded rapidly. By the end of the day, I had a headache from trying not to listen to all the thoughts of all the people within some given radius of our house. (I had no way of knowing the distance.) I didn’t sleep at all that night, which resulted in Cara’s level of worry skyrocketing the next morning when she arrived and saw my bloodshot, dark-circled eyes.

“I just didn’t sleep well.”

“I think it’s time to go back to the doctor.” Don’t you dare say no.

“I have an appointment tomorrow. Mom’s taking me after she gets home from school.”

“Good. I’m going with.” That way you can’t lie to the doctor.

I just inhaled and exhaled deeply, way too tired to even think about arguing with her. Anyway, I’d have welcomed just about anything the doctor could do to help me sleep again.

 

Out of what I can only assume was a biological need for self-preservation, it didn’t take me long to develop some measure of control over my gift. I learned quickly how to turn it on and off, almost as if I could just tune people out. At first, it was just on or off; I could hear either everyone or no one. Needless to say, if I was in a group with more than a few people, I just tuned everyone out, or I would have gone crazy. But when I was at home, I listened to my family, and found myself learning how to tune in and out to individual voices.

I always listened to my mom. There was always so much going on in her head. When Cara was around, I always kept her tuned in too; her mind was almost as busy as Mom’s, and at least as interesting, if not more. My dad and brothers were also pretty interesting, but listening to my whole family at the same time was chaotic and often confusing. So I developed a habit of keeping Mom and Cara always tuned in, while switching between my dad and brothers, and of course my sisters-in-law.

At first, I listened out of curiosity. It was so interesting to get a glimpse of what they all thought about. But as I grew older, it became a gauge for me to sort of monitor my family as a whole; I considered my gift to be a sign that I was being given a responsibility to make sure my parents and siblings were all okay.

As my nieces and nephews came along, my gift stretched to accommodate the family expansion. I found that I could listen to more voices at a time, while shifting between them. It’s difficult to explain how it worked, but it did.