01 Feb I’m a social worker for psychic children
The parents have it the hardest. First, they have to figure it out, the powers, the visions, whatever it might be. If they’re lucky they’re put in contact with us before it gets serious. If they’re unlucky they can lose everything. One girl, a real nasty job, I didn’t even get to meet. By the time I turned up the whole family had been crammed into the oven and the house had burned down. We had to peel them out of it, one by one, like giant fruit roll ups. We think she was a pyro but who knows? We weren’t there… We try to do some outreach but it’s hard with the government mandate stopping us from going public. Although it’s not always how you might think. We’re not like the Men in Black or anything. The truth is that when the supernatural turns up on your doorstep, you’ll likely choose not to believe it. And if you do, then no one else will believe you. That’s what I mean about the parents. They’re isolated from friends, family, even each other. These kids aren’t X-Men, levitating remotes or mowing the lawn with their minds. It’s stressful, sometimes even terrifying to live with.
It’s not easy when your six-year-old tells you the date and time of your death. Or you give them a bad row and the following morning you wake up with an abscess the size of a tennis ball filling your mouth like a ball-gag. And that stuff can happen even when the kid doesn’t mean it to. Their thoughts and emotions just leak out. And kids… they can have some pretty messed up thoughts. We have a pamphlet—more of a book, really—where we run through some of the common mistakes that parents make. It’s funny to read if you don’t know what’s at stake.
Introducing your gifted child to the concept of death, as early as possible, is essential to long-term safety. Examples of traditional folklore you should avoid discussing with your child include:
That their deceased goldfish has gone to live “in the sea”.
That dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. are now living happily on “a farm”.
That deceased grandparents have “gone to a better place”.
It goes on, but you get the gist. No two kids are alike but they ruminate on the little things. Phrases like “a better place” can become real to them in a way they’ll never be for an adult. They start to picture things, start to think of what it might be like, what it should be like… But a brain isn’t just a long line of thoughts. It’s like an ocean and there are depths filled with things out of sight, even a kid’s mind. Add in fact that most kids are a lot smarter and knowledgeable than their parents think and well…
What do you think a “better place” should be? Have you ever been to a funeral? Seen a corpse? Kids know more than you think. They visit grandma in a parlour somewhere, everyone’s crying, everyone’s sad, and their mother won’t let them open the box to see the old woman who gave them candy every week. Does that seem like a “better place” to you? All the black. All the tears. Being lowered into a hole in the ground and covered with dirt?
One of my early cases was a young girl, sweet as can be. She could, occasionally, tell the future in very specific terms. Her parents, bless them, hoped it’d lead to a better life but they made the mistake of asking when they’d die and the answer wasn’t what they wanted. It broke my heart to visit that little girl, to sit and play the Wii with her, laugh with her, and then look back at the kitchen and see her mother standing there with a distant look in her eyes. The little girl couldn’t understand why her parents jumped when she looked at them, or shivered when she hugged them. They still loved her but you could see they’d spent every second of every day counting down the moments.
It was up to me to make sure the little girl understood the reality of death, that much I managed. I remember her little frown as she did the maths. She’d been confused for a few weeks by that point, but her parents refused to answer her questions. I answered them all, and honestly at that.
“It’s not really a better place then, is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’m not even sure it is a place.”
“I shouldn’t have told mummy about the yellow car,” she whispered, her eyes tearing up as her little mind grasped such a big idea.
“Mummy shouldn’t have asked,” I replied a little too quickly, letting my emotions rise to the surface.
I hoped that’d be the end of it. I figured with any luck the mother and father would learn to live with what they knew and not drive themselves mad thinking about how to avoid it. Most people though, they get so blinded by the specifics they don’t see the big picture. That woman could have locked herself up in a bank vault to avoid being run over by the taxi her daughter described, only to drop dead from a heart attack a day later. I tried explaining that to them. I tried explaining that worrying won’t change a thing.
At least it’s not supposed to.
A few weeks later I returned for another welfare check and guess who answered the door? The little girl, looking hungry and ragged. In the kitchen, all the cupboard doors had been thrown open and she’d clearly started hacking away at old tins of food with a knife. There were even empty packs of pasta where she’d been eating the stuff dry and uncooked. At first I thought her parents had killed themselves, and she’d been forced to survive on her own for a short while. But when I asked her I got an answer that made my blood run cold.
“I sent them to a better place,” she said.
“You killed them?” I asked, wondering exactly what these parents had asked of their own child.
“No silly,” she answered. “An actual better place. I pictured the bestest place in the whole world and I made them go there.”
“What’s the bestest place in the whole world?”
“A beach!” she cried. “A beach that goes on forever and ever in all directions and you can eat as much as you want because the grass grows fruit and candy and there’s no one to tell you what to do so daddy never has to go to work again and mummy never has to worry about being fat because no one will ever see her get bigger and daddy will love her no matter what because he said so and…”
“How did… how did you send them there?” I asked.
She held up a piece of paper with blue crayon and beige lines scribbled all over the place. It was a kid’s interpretation of the beach, an explosion of colours and poorly drawn shapes that composed the background. The foreground, however, was something completely different. There were two black-and-white photorealistic figures, frozen in time, hands held to the sides of their head as a silent scream escaped from their lips.
“And the best thing about the better place?” the little girl beamed with pride. “You can never ever ever ever die! No matter how far you fall or how long you hold your breath or even if you eat loads and loads of poison.”
Bless her. She looked so proud of what she’d done…
Every now and again I pull that picture out and look at the girl’s parents. They move so long as you’re not looking directly at them. They push at the boundaries of the page, sometimes even go around the other side. At first they screamed and screamed and that was all I ever saw, but for the last few years they started just lying there next to each other staring at, what I guess might be the sky? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure time moves normally for them. There’s something that looks like a tally in the sand. If it is, the count is bigger than anything possible, whether it’s days or years.
I’ll burn it, one day. I just need to feel confident it’s the right thing to do. I still hold out hope the girl will come back and pull them out, worse for wear but ultimately alive. I lost contact with her when she turned thirteen though. Most of these kids don’t stick around into adolescence because they don’t have to, and the system is rough at the best of times. I wish I knew where they went. I like to think the government rounds them up and finds them a place where they can help the world with their powers. But most of these kids aren’t cut out to be fry cooks, let alone super-soldiers. Whatever purpose they find in life, I’m not so sure it’s for anyone else’s benefit.
Part of my job is minimising the threat these kids pose to relatives and society at large. Easier said than done, of course. It’s not just that there’s all this power condensed into a half-formed brain. It’s what they represent to the average person. In the movies if some gravedigger spots the undead grandma hauling her ass outta the ground and shuffling towards the horizon, all you have to do is spray him with whiskey and hope no one believes him. That last part holds out, but not the first. Do you know what the average person does when faced with proof of the afterlife? What do you think happens when the average person happens to catch a glimpse of what’s in grandma’s eyes, or God forbid they get the chance to exchange a few words with the formerly deceased? Kids who speak to the dead can be the worst because it turns out, whatever’s on the other side, it drives the average person fucking insane.
And I don’t just mean talking-to-your-self-insane. It’s more like slit-the-throats-of-your-family-and-castrate-yourself-with-a-razor-blade*-*insane. You might think you’ve accepted the idea of nothingness, or the idea of heaven, or hell. But the truth, I’m not so sure it can even fit inside one person’s head. The glimpse I had was bad enough to net me six months in a mental health facility.
It started when some poor boy had brought his grandfather back without even realising. He just thought about it long enough, hard enough, and it happened. Next thing was I got a phone call from the parents who’d locked themselves in the bathroom. They needed help. And even though I was on probationary training, I didn’t call up my supervisor. I just rushed out. Truth is I didn’t want to call my boss. I didn’t want to be supervised. I’d been waiting for this opportunity ever since I read about it in the training. I wanted to see someone who’d come back to life. I wanted to know what was on the other side. All the guys talked about it, about people coming back. But I hadn’t really thought they were being serious. It certainly seemed like they weren’t being honest with me.
I made the mistake of treating it as a problem that could be solved for x. I thought having an answer would do something, help me in some way…
I managed to find Grandpa staring at the bathroom door, formaldehyde leaking out his asshole and dripping onto the floor. Those eyes looked at me with an unspeakable hatred, a venomous glare bad enough to made me stumble back, keeping far out of his reach. But it wasn’t enough to stop me asking questions. They burst out of my mouth and I asked so many, so quickly, I don’t even remember what they were. I figure most of them boiled down to something like,
“What’s on the other side?”
When the old man spoke it was like his voice carried an epoch of suffering and weariness. I was looking at a soul that had been put through the ringer, twisted, washed, cleansed, battered, and abused. It wasn’t the same soul that had left, that was for sure. But one look in those eyes told you it wasn’t lying either.
“Servitude,” he answered and it was like a the ringing of a gong. I almost asked a follow up question but good God, something inside me choked and stopped the words. A part of my soul died hearing that word. I still lay awake at night thinking about it.
I don’t even know what it means, but it has haunted me ever since. Now it’s just like that picture, something I bury and try to forget about. I don’t want to think about it, and nor does your average Joe. If I let myself start asking questions like, “who’s doing the serving?” my mind just doesn’t stop. I spent six months going in circles, reading old case files hoping to learn more. That word stills calls out to me a few times a day, scattering my thoughts like rats before a torchlight.
Minimising the harm done by these kids can be hard when it’s at risk of putting you in a rubber room. Like I said, the only thing on our side is that 99% of people just don’t want to face the truth of what’s underneath all the mundane boring shit we call “daily life”. That’s why so many of these parents are so deeply unprepared. It takes a kind of twisted mind to imagine the world the way a kid does, and more importantly, to think of all the ways it can go wrong.
Your goldfish has gone to live in the sea.
The tooth fairy will take your old teeth.
Santa punishes the naughty.
Parents have been indoctrinated since childhood to think these white lies are a fundamental building block of parenting. It’s impossible to break as a habit. Even parents who know better, reasonable intelligent people who are doing the best they can, will still make a few mistakes here and there. The best they can hope for is that it doesn’t backfire and wipe out half the town. That’s when the other half of my job comes in: clean up. I have to direct the parents to the right type of clean-up crew. Most of the time it’s the guys with mops, buckets, and a very strong stomach. Other times it’s a nasty man in a suit who knows how to stop the neighbour from posting photos to the internet. Fuck… once it was a bunch of guys in lead-lined hazmat suits. That was a tough one to figure out. We still don’t really know what happened. But the Geiger counters they left behind still haven’t stopped clicking.
Talking about tooth fairies, in some parts of the world they’re very real. They weren’t always real, you understand, until some of these kids came along. Do you know how fucking scary the idea of a tooth fairy is to the average child? Let’s just say what some kid dreamed up in the eighties is exactly what you’d expect from a being who steals teeth for a living. Its face is nothing but a palate with teeth growing all over the damn thing, so that there’s barely a sliver of gum wider than a finger. And the teeth stink… they’re all rotting and yellow like a meth addict’s. And this thing goes around taking teeth and whenever an old one falls out of its… well I’ll call it a head but I’m not exactly an anatomist. But anyway, when one falls out, it takes one of the teeth its collected from kids’ mouths and finds a new home for it. Its muscular arms shake as it forces the root through flesh and cartilage, and I swear the sounds it makes are cries, but who knows? I always hoped the damn thing would disappear when the kid grew up but no, it’s apparently still out there, climbing gutters and drainage pipes using its arms because the kid who dreamed it, dreamed it with no legs.
And that’s just one of them… There are lots of tooth fairies.
Like I said, the world is terrifying to kids. And they think things in a way we can’t easily predict. But the consequences are all too real, often for the parents, sometimes passers-by. The only saving grace is that most of these kids are well-intentioned. Even the difficult ones, the ones with learning difficulties, or emotional problems, they’ll show regret when they realise that their actions have hurt people. That’s the most important ingredient in a person – remorse. People hurt each other all the time but the vast majority of us don’t do it knowingly. And even if we do know, it’s something we figure we have to do.
But, of course, there are others. Kids and people who know damn well what they’re doing. I don’t know a whole load about ‘em, just enough to help me identify them in my work. But they’re the kids who are ambivalent to the pain they cause because they just don’t care. Most of ‘em are narcissists, content to chase dreams of money and sex because it gives them a thrill. You read about how psychopaths do well in certain jobs like investment banker or whatever. Great. Good for them. The gifted ones I work with are actually quite similar. They’re not necessarily any worse than the other kids. They just tend not to be bothered when I explain to them that, after what they did to their little brother, he won’t be able to play any more Xbox with them.
There’s no guilt, no remorse.
The really bad ones though, they’re not just indifferent, they get a kick out of it. It takes a lot of moving parts to come together so that you make a person who enjoys hurting others. I read once that most serial killers have lower IQs because the average psychopath knows damn well that the cost-benefit analysis of murder isn’t in their favour. Murder is hard and the pay-off is usually quite small, and a smart psychopath knows that. Society imposes enough consequences to keep most people in line.
But when they’re gifted… well those consequences just go right out the window, don’t they?
If I can demonstrate the presence of sadism, and a total absence of remorse and empathy, in a child I can request permission to euthanise them. Some of the first tests we do when finding one—brain scans, questionnaires, EEG, so on—are all about identifying psychopathy. I used to hate it. The kids would ask what we were looking for, or sometimes start bawling their eyes out during the hammer test (my least favourite test of them all), and it always broke my heart to imagine what was waiting for them if I made the wrong decision. I understood, logically, why we did it. I just hated knowing that I had that kind of power. Those kids didn’t know what waited at the end of the road if they failed the tests… Not even their parents knew. I would have given anything to get the agency to drop those tests.
And then I met Bradley.
We had sixteen teachers suffer kidney failure in a single year and that’s what flagged his hometown for further investigation. Looking at the injuries some of these teachers had suffered, I was convinced that we were dealing with a teenager who had latent abilities. That kind of cruel spite is usually reserved teenagers. But actually, Bradley was just seven. I first saw him lying on his living room floor reading a university-level text book on anatomy. He was something of a prodigy, although he himself admitted he wasn’t that smart until he “started taking bits of other people’s minds.” The funny thing was his father was the spitting image of Bradley, his mother too, but you expect that kind of thing, don’t you? What you don’t expect is to see that the other kids in Bradley’s class look a little like him, that parents all over the place have been crying havoc to local scientists who simply don’t have any answers. They got these photos of their kids just a few years before Bradley moved in, and they look different. They have different facial structures, different hair colour, different eye colour. It’s subtle at first, but as time goes on you see these kids change more and more and it’s undeniable who they’re changing into.
And then the complaints stop because, of course, the parents start to look a little more and more like Bradley too.
“I’m just borrowing bits of them,” he told me. “Most people don’t think enough. There’s all this spare room in their head so I just help them find a good use for it.”
He infected their minds and, without really knowing why, he made them a little bit more like him. It was a side-effect, of course. But a shocking one. We had to cull a lot of people to bring things back to normal and even then Bradley wouldn’t just let us kill his main source of computing power. We had to negotiate and what he wanted was… well… He liked vivisection and he really liked live subjects. He also liked our tools, he said. Some things he just couldn’t learn from pilfering the average person’s brain but in our labs he was like a kid in a candy store. We didn’t really think that part through, if I’m honest. Putting him in a room with our scientists was guaranteed to end badly. But Bradley was so powerful…
Without ever really noticing, we pivoted from trying to contain him and started trying to just appease him. He was unlike any kid we’d come across. There was nothing stopping him from tying your colon into a knot just to see what would happen. He got a kick out of it, out of seeing people suffer because of his own actions. We don’t let scientists out in the field now just in case another telepath picks up some useful tips. A burst pancreas here, a brain-bleed there, turning your blood to something the consistency of pudding…
We still hold annual conferences trying to figure out what Bradley was, what his end-game was. He certainly wasn’t interested in any kind of new race or evolution. If we ever implied that he wasn’t the only psychic he’d get very upset. I lost my first supervisor to that. We didn’t know what Bradley was at the time. We’d just found him in his home, sure enough, and he was odd, definitely intelligent beyond all reason. But we didn’t know…
“You may feel alone, Bradley,” my boss said. “But in fact there are estimated to be nearly a hundred thousand children just like you—”
“There’s no one like me,” the little boy replied, and his eyes fixed on my boss like daggers. Next thing I know my boss is shaking, convulsing, blood is foaming out his mouth, his nose, his ears… When they finally got around to doing an autopsy on the old man, they say that there was barely anything left inside his skull. It had been ejected, with force, out of any available orifice from the neck-above. What little of his brain remained was pooled at the base of his skull, like the final dregs of milkshake at the bottom of a cup.
In the end it was Bradley’s ego that brought him down. After two years of watching him massacre his way through a small town, and then our labs, all while wondering when he’d finally set his sights on some bigger prey, I decided I couldn’t just let him carry on. The thing about kids is that even ones like Bradley, even the smartest cleverest and most knowledgeable ones don’t really have any experience. Throw in an ego the size of a planet and they often lack that essential humility beaten into most of us by adulthood.
In the end it was a little white lie. That’s what saved me, saved us all, really.
“No one’s spoken to what’s on the other side,” I told him. “We have never had any gifted person be able to reach out and see what happens after death.”
He came out of his room the next day and just… I don’t know. I didn’t feel sorry for him. But fuck, I came close. He had a little desk in the middle of our lab’s main floor, where he’d watch the scientists and read their minds like most kids flip through TV channels, and he walked right up to it and sat down. He looked so beaten, so utterly wiped out. He asked me for crayons, so I gave them to him. And he spent a few minutes scribbling something—a little house with some trees—and next thing I know he’s gone. He just popped out of thin air like he was deleted from one of life’s animation-frames. He wasn’t dead. He’d just put himself into the drawing.
They talk about him like I trapped him, like I beat him.
But truth is I think Bradley could leave the drawing whenever he wants to. You can see him in that house. He’s painting in there, I think. It’s all he ever does. Sooner or later the page will be lost, destroyed, maybe even intentionally. There’s no such thing as infinity when it comes to human life. But I remember the look in that dead old man’s eyes and I remember how it made me feel. Servitude. Bradley must have seen right through into whatever afterlife there is, and he did so with such clarity it’d put all the other kids to shame. Now I think he’s hiding. I think he knows sooner or later he’s going to end up on the other side and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. All that’s left to him is to put as much distance between the beginning of his life and its end, and he knew from experience he could make all kinds of special places where time runs slower than the norm. Don’t forget, he had all my memories to go through as well. I have no doubt he knew about that little girl and what she did to her parents.
The infinite beach.
Thankfully, we think Bradley was a blip. A cloud-computing telepath who borrowed other people’s minds to strengthen his own powers. That’s the kind of feedback loop that could end the world, maybe even the universe. We’re glad he called it quits, although it unsettles me to think of the reason.
Someone asked me once what I think these kids are. I’m not sure, but I’m tempted to call them a bug, an error. Whatever they are, they’ve tapped into something underneath the banal reality most of us fixate on. The one filled with recyclable cups and microwave TV dinners. You hear that and you think it must be a thing of wonder to have that kind of knowledge. I just think of Bradley… a literal god amongst humans who took one hard long look and fled with his tail between his legs. If I ever glimpse his face in that picture, looking out the window, all I can think is that he looks so God damn scared.