The Novel--Aborted Opening Chapter (Third Attempt)
I. The Secret
Will lost the dearest person in his life two weeks before his ninth birthday. But he remembered that day not for the shock, and then sorrow, and then drastic changes in the pattern of his life that had followed—although each of these had been significant. In his mind, it stood out most clearly as the day he had discovered the secret about himself, that secret that had scared him so much, he didn’t dare tell anyone about it, not even his mother. He had almost told her, in that moment when the realization had suddenly tumbled into his young awareness and he had stared at it, startled, wondering what he should do. But a glance at the tracks of tears still shining on his mother’s cheeks, at the usual graceful strength of her tall form curved in despair, had whispered to him that now was not the time, and a moment later his new gift warned him that the time might not come for many years. Might never come. So Will remained silent.
Later, in the dark silence of his room, he tried to pinpoint the moment understanding had fallen. He had been pulled out of class early that afternoon, the first hint that the day would hold something out of the ordinary. But what? Will had wondered, as he cleared off his desk and placed books in his satchel. Am I in trouble? He could not think of anything he had done wrong recently, at least not that he was likely to have been caught in. Does Father have need of me for something? Or perhaps Mother has returned from the Far East. But why should she call me home early?
Kendra raised her eyebrows at him from across the classroom, and he gave her a helpless shrug. She was wondering whether he would still be able to meet her after school as they had planned, and of course he did not know. He gave her one of their old hand signals, the one meaning, don’t wait for me, take care of yourself. Her forehead wrinkled in concern, as that sign usually had the negative connotations of a plan gone awry, so he flashed her one more, a sign of reassurance: it’ll be all right. Will hoped his optimism was warranted.
Bidding farewell to his teacher, Will followed the messenger sent to escort him as she turned and led the way out through the square and into the marketplace. But she knew nothing of the reason for Will’s summons—this was obvious from her failure to patronize the boy with overly excited half-hints, as she would have done had the reason been a good one, or to peek with curious fascination at him from the corners of fixed-forward eyes, were it bad. Instead she made idle small talk over her shoulder as they picked their way through clusters of shoppers on their way towards the dusty roads of the residential district.
Will could tell by her haphazard comments that she was unaccustomed to the company of children; she did not know what sort of responses to expect from this boy of nearly nine, and was thus not disturbed by his lack of any. This left him free to make his own observations of their surroundings without being compelled to respond to hers. It was the Day of Craft, and pottery and textiles were on display on platforms and table in open-air booths. Shoppers jostled as they perused the colorful wares, and Will recognized many whose faces and even some whose names he knew, but as usual his small stature kept him for the most part quite literally below their awareness. A well-dressed man slipping out the doorway of the Port Authority caught Will’s roving glance, and in the mutual jolt of recognition Will got his first hint of the pit soon to open up before him.
The man was a neighbor and family friend who sometimes joined Will’s family for dinner, especially when his mother was home from her travels, because he had some sort of financial interests abroad. Will didn’t fully understand them, except that they caused the man to seek his mother’s perspectives on the state of certain troubled areas. But there was something in the quick shock with which he noticed Will in the bustling crowd that suggested he had been thinking of the boy before he saw him, and the flicker of apology that followed it, as though he felt he should say something, but wasn’t sure what, or how to do so at this distance, warned Will that the circumstances behind the messenger’s appearance were to be feared more than he had previously guessed.
But the messenger walked on, oblivious, giving Will no opportunity to glean further information from the man, who hurried off in the opposite direction. They soon arrived at Will’s front door and he rapped once, stopped in the act of returning the messenger’s curt nod of farewell by the sight of his mother’s stricken face as she swung open the door.
She swooped onto him with a desperate embrace that was like the clinging of a shipwrecked sailor to a plank of wood, pulling him to he so tight it was as if he had been pulled inside of her, could feel her very heart breaking. And in that moment he somehow knew that his father was gone. Not dead, not as far as his mother knew anyway. But he could feel, in her grip, the hole left in her by the knowledge of his father’s absence. This thought filled him with fear, because his mother was not one to make mistakes or hasty assumptions, and if she believed his father lost, then Will was left with no choice but to believe that it was so.
But this fear was pushed aside by the alarming realization that this information was coming to him, not by any close observation of his mother’s external movements or expressions, but by a direct experience of her internal state, which he had somehow been caught up in the midst of. He found himself, suddenly, wandering in the cavern of her thoughts, barraged by the whirl of her emotions, aware of her awarenesses, experiencing the pressure of his own body held against hers. The landscape was disorienting in its unfamiliarity, even more bewildering for the turmoil it was that moment engulfed in. He had lost himself in his mother, and he did not know how to get back to the surroundings he had never even realized he was accustomed to until he had been torn inexplicably from their midst. His body stiffened with the shock, pulling him back into his own head, and awakening his mother to his presence.
“Will,” she said, stilling with enormous effort the trembling in her voice. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Exhausted from the storm of confusion and fear he had just emerged from, Will responded with automatic obedience.
“What is it, Mother?”
“Come inside.” She released his small frame, held him by the hand as she rose and drew him into the house, shutting the door behind him. He followed her in silence to the inner room, where she sat him beside her on the cushions. She looked down into his eyes, smoothed his hair with a gentle hand and wiped away the tears he had not even felt course down his cheeks. “I have frightened you, my child.”
“Yes, Will. No need to be ashamed. I am sorry, I should have left more time to compose myself. I am still…quite upset. I was not thinking when I sent for a messenger to retrieve you. But, I am glad you are home.” Her hand, which had come to rest on his shoulder, tightened, as if to keep him from slipping away. He did not move, held her gaze steadily. I am here, Mother, he told her silently. Her grip relaxed.
“Will, your father went out to the Temple this morning. Beulla Otrida saw him passing, he told her he was going to consult the Thinkers, that he should be back by midday. He entered a Meditation Room under the observation of the Keeper, Gillan Journam. Several hours later he had still not emerged. Gillan became worried. He went to knock on the door, noticed it was unlatched. It would not have been so were your father within. He found your father’s charma on the floor, but there was no sign of him in the room. He has not returned. He has vanished, Willem.” Her chest shuddered compulsively, but her lips, pressed tight, expelled no sigh of breath.
“But what makes you certain he will not return? It seems to me there could have been some urgent matter, something the Thinkers revealed, that needed tending, that Father could have slipped away to do so without speaking to—”
“I’m afraid it is unlikely, my dear one. Ioseppa is not the first to vanish from a Meditation Room. There have been others. The Authorities have kept it quiet, hoping to protect the sanctity of the Temple in the minds of the people, but several others have… gone… in such a way. Charmae abandoned, door ajar. It was explained to me. They are still unsure what becomes of these people but, as yet, none have returned. The first to disappear has been missing three years. Turann Genni warned me it was best to accept, that he has seen others broken by the dashing of hopes they held on to for too long. We must be strong, Willem.”
Will nodded, numb to emotion. The experience of entering his mother’s emotions had left him out of touch with his own, or maybe there was simply too much to deal with in this moment. He reached out and squeezed his mother’s hand, and the contact opened again, to him, a path into her mind. But this time he was not forcefully pulled into her; rather, he saw it as an opening before him, through which he could choose to step. He peered in curiously, saw fears springing up like fires faster than his mother could put them out, although from the safety of his own mind he could not tell exactly what they were, and he did not dare re-enter because he was still not sure he could control his return to himself. He edged back, and this was the moment he had considered telling her of the strange connection he had experienced, asking if she had felt it, too. But he had decided against it. Instead, he had spoken admiringly.
“You are strong, Mother.”
Her lips stretched into a half-smile, although her eyes remained unchanged. “Thank you, Willem. You are a brave boy. I must go out and speak with some people, there are arrangements that must be made. Would you like me to send for someone to stay with you? The Beulla, perhaps?”
“No, thank you, I’d like to be alone. I will go up to my room.” He stood, bowed to his mother, withdrew from the room and climbed the ladder into his bed. He lay curled, staring, unseeing, out the window, pondering what had happened to him. He could do it again, he knew—the second time, as he had held his mother’s hand, he had sensed mechanisms, paths… It was all very confusing. He wondered whether all people had this gift, whether others had explored the landscape of his mind before, without his awareness. Surely it was an invasion, to enter the thoughts of another, especially if they did not know you had been there. Perhaps he was some sort of monster, to have done so, to his own mother, in her time of grief. Perhaps he would be taken away for punishment, or for study, should someone find out of his ability. Will vowed never to do it again.