Crossed Off

Very few people were aware of Starla Wakefield’s ability to possess the bodies of other people. She first discovered her gift at a very early age, but instinctively knew that she had to keep quiet about it. The first person to find out about it was her best friend, Alec who was also the first person with whom she switched bodies. He was a couple years older, and was always there to help her with homework and bullies. While she was freaking out about being in the body of another person, he seemed pretty happy about it. He liked to watch movies about superheroes, and saw this as a chance to live one out in real life. He insisted that she would one day grow up and become a superhero herself, and that he would be her sidekick.
Together, they learned how to use her skills both accurately and responsibly. They discovered that she was capable of switching places with anyone in the entire world. She could also possess them without allowing them access to her body; she could see through their eyes while they remained in control, so that they were completely unaware that anything was different; and she could share a body with the owner. After some research in the library, Alec decided to nickname her Avatar, based on the idea that she could cross over from her place to another. Over the years, she collected seven other confidants from around the world, mostly accidentally while testing her limits. She spent her time learning about other cultures, and going on instant vacations. Her favorite switch, however, was in the body of a retired conservationist who spent his days interacting with the feral horses of Cumberland Island, which was only a few miles away.
Soon after Alec headed off for college, Starla began to show unusual symptoms that were almost certainly the result of her ability. She started losing control of her own motor functions. At first, her limbs slouched for minutes at a time, but she was eventually able to regain control. But things were getting worse. The doctors had no clue what was happening with her. After all, how could they? They tested for a stroke, multiple sclerosis, and ALS, among a few other things. Despite showing a number of common symptoms, the neurological degeneration simply was not there. Her brain was sending signals throughout her body, but they were somehow blank messages. There was some kind of loss in translation during transit that current medical technology could not explain.
After several months, Starla found herself forced to remain in a wheelchair. For the most part, she had retained control of her upper body, but her legs didn’t move at all. Every second she was left alone she took the opportunity to take over the body of someone somewhere else who happened to be asleep at the time. That was the only time she had when she could move around freely. She felt bad that these people would wake up the next morning feeling fully unrested, but she had given in to the dark side of her personality. Her worldwide confidants offered to give her temporary control of their bodies, but she felt even worse about that since she knew them.
Starla couldn’t move all of her body but, unlike a paraplegic, she could still feel everything. Sitting in the chair all day was extremely uncomfortable. One day, when she was visiting Alec in his dorm room, his lovely roommate, Kathleen let herself be late for class so that she could lift Starla into the bed. Once she left, they were able to talk freely. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” he asked.
“I’m going to die.”
“Don’t say that. This doesn’t have to end like that, or even be permanent. But you have to stop what you’re doing. I have a theory that the body cannot exist too long without the mind. Switching consciousnesses is probably okay, but if you leave the brain without any purpose, then I imagine it starts to decay.”
“I don’t mean that this is going to kill me. That’s the problem. It’s probably not. I’m going to be stuck like this forever, and my only chance would be to possess some poor schmuck permanently. I know myself, Alec. Without you, I would have abused this in so many ways.”
“I do not agree.”
“Well, you would be wrong. You said it yourself, I need to stop taking over sleeping people’s bodies. I can’t help myself. It’s far too tempting. The only way out of this is to take myself out of the equation.”
“And how exactly would you do that,” Alec asked. “Sorry to be blunt, but you can barely lift a toothpick. How would you lift a gun, or a knife, or even a bottle of pills?”
Fortunately, Starla could still shrug, so she shrugged. “I could make someone else do it for me, literally.”
He nodded, pretending to see her point. “And what if you die while still in this person’s body? Hmm? What if you get stuck there? What if the only reason you can switch bodies is because this body is still a valid origin? Maybe you wouldn’t be taking yourself out of the equation; you would just be killing the one thing that keeps you in control of your ability. Without it, you could doom that person to spend the rest of their life unable to actually live it.”
“I’ll have him stab or shoot me in the chest. That will give me plenty of time to jump back before getting stranded.”
“Okay, but then you’ve just made that person a murderer. There he is, standing over the body of a young handicapped girl. Amnesia doesn’t hold up well in court. They would be put on trial. If they’re bad, they’ll probably do something stupid and get caught. If they’re good, they’ll turn themselves in because they’ll assume they were the culprit, just like everybody else will.”
“You said something about pills?”
“I said something hoping that you would give up this quest based on logic. I see now that that tactic is not going to work on you. So let’s switch to your heart, which is hopefully not as damaged as your crazy nutso cuckoo brain. What about me? I love you, and you’re just going to leave me?”
“I don’t see any other choice.”
“I just gave you a choice. Stay put,” Alec suggested. “Don’t use it at all. It might mean years, or it may only take a few weeks, but your condition may go away. You don’t have a disease. There’s nothing wrong with your tissue. There’s no reason this isn’t reversible. Perhaps you haven’t gotten better because you haven’t given yourself the chance.”
“I’m sick of arguing about this.”
“So am I.”
“Let’s talk about something light. Your new roommate seems nice.”

“Kathleen is great, yeah.”

They sat in awkward silence before Starla slumped over. Alec lifted her eyelids and checked for the signs of body switching, but found her pupils to be normal. She had just fallen asleep, so he took the opportunity to go down the hall to access the payphone. “Hello, Tristan,” he said into the mouthpiece. “No, Kathleen’s fine. Thanks for putting us together. I don’t think I could have handled another semester with the horrible guy the school paired me with.—No, I’m calling because Starla is having bad thoughts. I have a break coming up, and I was hoping to come up to Kansas City to meet you. I think seeing one of her confidants in person will be good for her, and you’re obviously the closest one.—Yes.—Yeah, that would be the plan.—Okay, I’ll figure out how I can convince her. Thanks, bye.”

Little did Alec know that Starla often accidentally slipped into his mind when she fell asleep. She had heard every word.

When Starla woke up the next morning, the first thing she did was complain about Alec lying to her. “You had the entire rest of yesterday to tell me that you’re planning to drag me to Kansas City.”
“I was trying to choose my words carefully.”
“Yes. You are known for not speaking clearly when you don’t have the whole night to think about it.”
“We’re doing this, Starla.”
“Why?”
“Because that’s what normal people do; they go see their friends, physically. They get in a car, train, or plane, and they move through space in real-time. I think you kind of need to see what that’s like.”
“That sounds incredibly exhausting. I don’t know how you get through the day like that. I’m fine the way I am. I won’t kill myself, I promise.”
“If you think that this trip is only about that then you obviously don’t understand what friendship is.”
“It’ll be rather awkward, won’t it? I just met Kathleen, and now we’re going to visit her brother four states over? What’s your cover again? How does she think you even know Tristan?”
“We told her that we met at archery camp.”
“You haven’t picked up a bow in your life.”
“I’m thinking about picking it up. Tristan makes it sound interesting.”
“That he does. He doesn’t care about anything but Kathleen and archery.”
Kathleen came back into the room with a towel wrapped around her still dripping body. “What’s this?”
“Uh...what?” Alec asked.
“This door isn’t very thick. What did you say about not doing archery?”
Oh no. Alec and Starla tried to come up with excuses for what they had meant during the conversation, but nothing sounded plausible. They ended up breaking down and just telling the truth about Starla’s ability to switch bodies with people. Kathleen was surprisingly open to the idea, and requested proof politely, which Starla obliged. They would have called her healthily skeptical.
“This is going to make things a lot easier, isn’t it?” Kathleen asked. “Not having to tiptoe around me anymore? I did always found your relationship with my brother a tad bit suspicious. I didn’t think too much of it, though. He’s always been into younger guys, but doesn’t think I know, so I figured you were together, or at least had been before.”
“No,” Alec laughed. “We’ve actually never met in real life.”
“Well.” She slapped her knees with finality. “I’m going to get dressed first, and then spend the next few days going to classes. Then we’ll all go up together. It’ll be a fun road trip!” She dramatically pulled her towel away and finished drying off.
She’s taking this a little too easily, Starla said to Alec telepathically.

You’re so hesitant of people, Alec thought back to her. Just because you didn’t read her thoughts—and you definitely shouldn’t do that—doesn’t mean she has something to hide.

I don’t read people’s thoughts anymore, Starla countered. You taught me how to stop that, and I haven’t anymore. Don’t judge me.
Kathleen eyed them curiously while she was putting on her shorts. “Are you two talking to each other?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
“Were you talking about me?” Kathleen asked.
“No,” Starla replied. “We were discussing the events during yesterday’s sports competition.”
“Oh yeah?” Kathleen put her hands on her hips. “What sport?”
Starla thought about it for a second. “Vector?”
Kathleen laughed and looked to Alec. “How has she not yet been caught? She’s a terrible liar.”
“Could you teach me?”
Kathleen stopped getting dressed for a second, assessing the situation to make sure they were no longer joking before she answered, “I most certainly can.”
Starla spent the next few days attending Alec’s and Kathleen’s classes as a prospective student. Kathleen was particularly interesting in bringing her to a special lecture on neurobiology, targeted at students interested in pursuing the subject after completing the general requirements. They sat next to Kathleen’s gracer, Denton. The first thing the guest speaker did was throw up a slide with an image of a human brain in the middle of surgery. “This is a brain,” Magnus Shapiro said. “More specifically, this is my brain.”
A young man covered his mouth desperately with his hand and struggled to leave the room.
“Lost another one I see. If you can’t handle this, you are in the wrong field of study. Neurobiology, and really biology of any kind, is not for you.” He paused to let people leave as they needed, but no one else did. “The human brain is the most powerful machine in the universe. It is highly efficient, potentially limitless, and shockingly underused. You are all idiots. Evolution gave this gift of an intelligent mind, and you fail to utilize it properly. Don’t be sad, it’s not your fault. Because biology also placed roadblocks on your mind. If you could fire your neurons to the absolute best of their ability, there is no telling what you would do. Possible results of a less hindered mind include accelerated learning, control of normally involuntarily biological processes like breathing and heartbeat, superior body temperature regulation, and even possibly the subversion of death. If you could somehow...” he gathered her words “...tell your body to regrow limbs, repair damage, or fight off a disease in a certain way, you would never reach death.”
A girl in the front row raised her hand and Magnus Shapiro called on her. “Magnus, if we were all immortal, the planet would be overpopulated, and we would run out of resources.”
“Would we?” Shapiro asked rhetorically. “Before we reach that level of intellect, surely we would have solved other problems. Food, land space, and construction materials are only restricted by our current situation. There are hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy alone. It is estimated that there are 500 million planets capable of supporting life to the level of ours, and many more with other resources. All we have to do is figure out how to get there. One man can do that. Just make one man smart enough to solve these problems, and ask him for his help. He’ll lift everybody else up.”
Starla looked over and saw that Denton was enamored with the lecture, almost like he was in a trance. Kathleen looked between him and Starla, like she had a secret of her own. She smiled and nodded to Denton. Starla shook her head, unclear what she wanted. Kathleen just urged her on, and continued to motion to Denton. Did she want her to possess his body? Assuming that to be her intention, Starla closed her eyes and prepared to jump into Denton’s body. She had to think about it beforehand, otherwise she could choose the wrong method and give herself away. She took a deep breath and jumped, leaving her body looking like she was only sleeping, continuing to listen to the lecture from Denton’s point of view. The experience was fascinating. Denton was eating up the Magna’s words. He was processing the information at a rate that she had never felt before. He seemed to be gathering information from other people as well, even though they weren’t speaking. He wasn’t reading their minds. It was more like he was absorbing their knowledge. Had she met another avatar? Could he teach her to do the same?
“...who knows what kind of powers a hyperintelligent human being might have,” Shapiro went on. “Is telekinesis possible? Could someone be so empathetic to others that their own body can be altered on a glandular level?” As he was scanning the crowd for their reactions, he stopped on Starla and Denton. He watched them for a second, causing the students to wonder what was going to happen next. “Could a person use their mind to see what life is like from another person’s perspective? The literal manifestation of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes?”
Out of fear, Starla quickly jumped back into her body and gasped for air. Everyone looked up at her. “Sorry, I’m fine,” she lied.
Magnus Shapiro kept looking at her for a moment before moving on with his speech. He looked back up to them every once in a while, especially when he hit points that were eerily relevant to Starla’s ability. After it was over, Kathleen said that she had to get clear across campus quickly, and asked Denton to take Starla back to the dorm room.
“I can do that, but I was hoping to speak with the magnus first,” Denton said
“I’d love to do that as well,” Starla said. “So that works out perfectly.”
Other students had flocked to ask Shapiro questions, but he was pretty much ignoring them. He was staring at the two of them as Denton was wheeling Starla towards him. He waved his hand to the rest of the students. “I’ve stolen Magnus Björkman's office for the rest of the week. I’ll answer any questions tomorrow.” The students didn’t know what to do. “That’ll be all. Thank you very much,” he clarified. They finally took the hint and dispersed.
Denton nodded with respect. “Magnus.”
“I’m pretty hungry,” the magnus said to him. “Could you recommend a nice quiet place to eat in this town?”
Denton smiled. “I sure could.”
“Great.”
“Would you have room for company?” Denton asked.
“I hate to eat alone.” He looked down at Starla. “As long as you’re coming too.”
She was a little anxious, but she had to understand not only how Denton’s special mind worked, but also how the professor was somehow able to sense them. “Sure.”
“Wonderful.”

Someone Else’s Goat Tails
Though Starla felt awkward, Magnus Shapiro and Denton stared at each other like they were in the middle of an intense game of Polygon. She had checked in with their minds briefly while reading the menu; only long enough to find that they had all decided to order soup because it was the quickest thing to swallow, allowing a more fluid conversation. Shapiro could somehow feel her inside his head, so she was forced to leave quickly. “You’re a telepath.”
“Not in so few words,” Starla answered, trying her best to reach their intellectual levels.
After the waitress left, Magnus Shapiro placed his elbows on the table and pursued a line of question. “Tell me. Can you control my actions?”
“I can control your movements.”
“The difference?”
“I can possess your body and make people think I’m you. And when I’m there, I can either give you my body, force you to be a passenger, or put your mind to sleep. But, I can’t change your thoughts, so you’ll notice a time shift if I take full control. My ability to read minds is just a required secondary power, and I don’t use it that often. People have messed up thoughts.”
“Fascinating. And you, Mister Wescott?”
“I can learn what others know just by being around them. I can’t read their minds, but I absorb their knowledge after I’ve been around them for long enough. There are downsides to this. I crave the knowledge to a greater level than you crave tomato soup, and everyone has to be conscious for it, which means that I don’t get a lot of sleep. I was hoping you could somehow teach me self-restraint and discipline.”
Magnus Shapiro, who insisted they call him Dathan from then on, nodded his head and processed the information. “Due to my—honestly, there is no subtler way to put this—superior intelligence, I intuited that there were others, but what you’re implying is not what I predicted.”
“What did you expect?” Denton asked.
Dathan went on, “I assumed that others like me would simply be either more or less intelligent than I. My theory was that, if we could harness our brain power more effectively, we could do anything within the laws of physics; but all laws would remain at a constant. If Subject A is telepathic, and Subject B is empathic, it simply means that Subject B has not yet learned telepathy, and also that Subject A must necessarily be empathic as well. But you two have latched on to niches. I have no reason to believe that you, Starla could one day absorb knowledge passively. Likewise, I can’t imagine that Denton would ever be capable transferring his consciousness to others.”
“Because we’re too dumb for it?” Starla asked.
Denton laughed. “No. He’s saying that it’s not about how smart we are. The fact that the three of us present completely different abilities suggests that something else is the cause. We’re not dumb, but we aren’t this way because we’re smarter. We’re this way because our genetic code is different than that of normal people.”
“Yes,” Dathan responded, this time not concerned that the waitress could hear them. “What I want to know is why. The only reason organisms evolve is because certain individuals in a generation possess a random mutation that turns out to be beneficial to their survival. They pass on these genes either because they live long enough to propagate their species—to the disappointment of those without the mutation—or because potential mates find the mutation in question to be desirable, to the frustration of less desirable rivals.”
“And is that not what’s happening here?” Starla was more lost than ever.
“Well, we’re human. We aren’t born with a fur coat, because we kill animals and take their coats. We don’t have large sharp teeth to build shelters with trees because we’re smart enough to develop sophisticated tools that do that for us. Do not misunderstand me, evolution is still going strong for the human race. You can’t stop mutations, despite what eugenicists might love to believe...” Dathan trailed off and stopped himself. He had just discovered a truth. “That’s it.”
Denton leaned forward. “What’s it?”
“Eugenicists. That’s the only explanation.”
“I don’t follow,” Dathan said. “I mean, I do follow. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I don’t quite know how you came to the conclusion that you could rule out all possibilities besides eugenics.”
Starla adjusted herself in her chair. “I just plain don’t follow.”
Denton explained it to her while Dathan remained in his trance. “Eugenics is built on the idea that we can pick and choose desirable mutations purposely. Instead of a fish being able to survive better than its brothers because it has larger fins and is thusly a little faster, a person protects that fish and forces it to mate with others it has chosen, sometimes killing fish they don’t like. It’s basically breeding. We’ve seen it with the kaidas. Someone liked goats, but they didn’t like how bad goats were with the indoors, so they only kept the baby goats that could be better trained. Only those goats were allowed to make more babies, and eventually you have a completely docile and obedient kaidas who would have a hard time surviving in the wild, and even looks noticeably different than a wild goat. And some of them were bred for their milk, meat, and fur, so you have farm goats which are neither docile nor wild. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem until you apply these same principles to humans, and try to decide who is allowed to live and procreate, and who is of no use and needs to be discarded.”
“That’s awful.”
Denton shrugged, clearly used to being the smartest one in the room. “It’s what the War of 1899 was about. A disgraced lawyer who lives on the other side of the world reads articles about eugenics from our scientists and becomes responsible for the killing of thousands of people because they weren’t good enough for him and his followers. We blame his country, and bomb the hell out of it.”
“I guess I should pay better attention in history class.”
Denton looked down at his soup, first realizing that he had yet to try it. “I cannot relate to that. I often wish I could.”
Dathan finally came back to the discussion. “I as well.”
Starla laughed. “Oh, you’re still here? Have you figured out what’s wrong with us?”
“Absolutely nothing, of course. I haven’t really figured out anything. Mister Wescott was right. There are other possibilities that I cannot yet rule out, but my instinct is that this was done to us intentionally.”
“But the timeline doesn’t work out,” Denton countered. “Not with how slow evolution is, and how recently scientists would have needed to have so much as attempted this.”
Dathan scratched his hair vigorously. “No, you’re right; it doesn’t. For our abilities to be so ingrained in us that we use them without thinking, experiments would have to have been done to our ancestors many generations back. But for the necessary technology to exist, it couldn’t have happened more than a century ago, even assuming the rogue scientists were twenty years ahead of the standard.”
“Sounds like we’re in a pickle.” Starla took a bite out of her pickle.
“If our crazy theory about ancient rogue scientists is true, you know what else this means, right?” Denton asked of Dathan who nodded in agreement.
“That they probably didn’t limit themselves to neurological enhancements, and that if we’re not alone, other people could have drastically different abilities that have barely anything to do with the brain?” Starla slurped up the remaining pickle seeds and prepared to go back to her soup. When they looked at her funny, she simply said, “what? Is that wrong?”
Denton followed professor Shapiro back to Hudson during the break while Starla and Alec started their trip towards Kansas City with Kathleen. Alec was supposed to give up the reigns to Kathleen halfway through so that he could rest, but she ended up falling asleep, and didn’t wake up until he had gone over seven hours straight. She immediately forced him to pull over. They hadn’t left as early as they wanted so they decided to stay the night in St. Louis instead of trying to make it all the way.
Right out of college, Tristan found a high-paying executive position at a medical technology company. He liked to give his sister, Kathleen money, and he considered it an insult to not take it. Eventually, she got used to this, and stopped the modest refusals. He hooked them up with a pretty fancy hotel suite. Each of their rooms had its own television set, and the larger television in the communal area had a video tape recorder. They wouldn’t have time to use it, but it was nice to have around.
One side effect from Starla’s ability was that her dreams were entirely lucid, and she could remember every detail about them upon waking. This allowed her to tell the difference between a dream of her own and a body jump. She had developed laser focus and never jumped when she didn’t want to, except, of course, with Alec. This time was different. She had no choice but to jump over to Denton’s body. It was like he was summoning her to him. Did you somehow bring me here? she asked him with her thoughts.
Not on a conscious level, he replied. I think we’re connected. I think the more of us that come together, the easier it is to find even more.
Why do you say that? Starla asked.
Do you know where we are?
He was in an elevator, so she had no way of knowing exactly where. You have to think it to me. I can read your mind without you knowing it when we’re in proximity, but I only have surface access remotely.
This is the Confederacy Building. I came here as a tourist, but now I have the urge to go up to the twenty-fourth floor. The closer I get, the stronger the feeling of familiarity. It’s the same thing I felt when I first met you. Initially, I thought it was just because I was sexually attracted to you, but I felt the same thing around Magnus Shapiro, and I’m not that attracted to him. There’s some sort of scientific phenomenon we do not understand that binds us together. We’re all different, but there must be some kind of trait that we all share, that others do not possess.
So you think there’s another one of us in this building?
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Denton cautiously stepped out. Yes, I do. A part of me can’t imagine there not being someone else. Denton walked down the halls like one would a labyrinth. He would step in one direction, only to realize that it was the wrong way, so he’d step back and go another way. He ended up in the middle of a large collection of cubicles. It was so late that only a few people were still there. He scanned the room, looking for some sign, but saw nothing obvious. He took one more step forward.
A woman in the middle of the room stood up and curiously turned around to lock eyes with him. She quickly maneuvered around the cubicles and approached him. “What language do you speak?”
“Standard C,” he answered.
“What’s happening here?”
“You brought me here. Rather, something brought us together.” Denton stopped and tilted his head. “What department is this?”
“Interpretation and Translation,” the woman replied.
“Language. Why didn’t I think to immerse myself in that before.” He swayed back and forth, reveling in the flood of data being sent to his brain. “I’m getting so many different languages from you. Dozens. Ones I couldn’t even name. How do you know so many? And how am I absorbing it so quickly?”
The woman was shocked, but excited. “I don’t know how you’re doing it at all. I can’t absorb a language unless someone is speaking it.”
“But it’s just language with you. You don’t gain any other information?”
“No, of course not. But you do. Why are we how we are?”
“I have someone I think you should meet. He and I are trying to figure that out. There are others. We all do something different.”
“I thought I was just...” she tried to find her words, “just different. Smarter, maybe. Some form of hyperthymesia.”
Denton laughed. “That’s pretty much what Magnus Shapiro thought.” He turned his attention inward. You’re awfully quiet, Starla. I know you’re still there, though.
I was letting you do whatever it is you wanted to do. But you should probably ask her name, at the very least.
Good point. He extended his arm. “I’m Denton Wescott.”
She shook his hand. “Ling Guo.”
“Are you done with work?” He put his head down like a child with his first crush. He definitely didn’t act like that around Starla, and he was still with Kathleen, as far as she knew. “Do you wanna go grab some coffee and talk? Ya know, for research purposes.”
“Research, of course. Yes.”
I’m leaving. Best of luck to you with whatever the hell this is.
‘Kay byee, Denton thought back to her. “Wait,” he accidentally said out loud.
“What?” Ling asked.
“Oh, sorry, not you.”
“Do what now?”
Starla, can you understand the thoughts of any language?
Thoughts are thoughts, Starla explained. People think in abstracts, not sentences. It doesn’t matter what language they speak; they think the same way. That’s how I communicate with people all over the world.
“Are you doing something?” Ling pressed. “Blink twice if something is wrong.”
Denton closed his eyes once and held them down deliberately before opening again. Now that there are four of us, we need to get together and gather more data. You should come here to Hudson.
Alec and Kathleen are never going to agree to that, and I can’t exactly leave on my own.
We’ll figure something out. Maybe we’ll come down to Kansas City instead.
Goodnight, Denton. Be careful.
He ignored her final remark. “Night, Starla.” This time he knew full well that he was saying it aloud.
“Are you talking to someone else?”
Denton smiled. “Let’s go. I’ll tell you all about it.” He let slip a few stray thoughts about his sudden feelings for Ling. It was clear that being around someone who could alone provide him with so much knowledge was intoxicating to him.
Should Starla tell Kathleen, or no? She was his gracie, after all. Did she not have the right to know? She went back to her own private dreams and decided to sleep on it.
Hugs all around when Starla and the gang finally arrived in Kansas City. Tristan had taken a personal day off of work to provide them with a proper greeting. He treated them to the best barbecue in the world, a tour of downtown, and a game to see who could find the highest number of cow statues along the roads. Afterwards, Alec and Kathleen went off to the swimming pool to give Starla and Tristan some time alone.
“It’s a bit awkward not occupying the same body, isn’t it?” he asked.
“More for me than for you. Most of the people you meet are in three dimensions. This is a new experience.”
“I bet.” His was a very calming and therapeutic voice; one that could never be quite understood during one of their mind melds.
“So, go ahead. Give me the lecture. I assume you prepared some talking points. I don’t mind if you use flashcards.”
“This isn’t an intervention, Starla. True, we are incredibly worried about you. But we’re not here to show you what you have to live for, or what it’s like to be a normal person. You’re here because I love you and I wanted to see you in real life.”
“I’m not going to kill myself.”
“That’s awesome news. I’ll alert the media.”
“I’m serious.”
“Me too.” He leaned forward and lowered his eyebrows. “It’s important that you admit that, not to me, but to yourself. No one wants you to leave us, but none of that matters if you don’t feel the same way. We can literally stop you from doing anything. Every single one of us is physically stronger than you. But you would be miserable. We have to be able to leave you alone, or life is meaningless.”
“I get it.” And she did. She was never going to be free from her feelings of hopelessness, but she could learn to control them. She could learn to live with them, and to find little moments of happiness. Whether they had intended this or not, the fact that everyone was coming together to help her through her problems was enough for her to want to prove them right.
“Good.” He started rubbing his mouth and chin, like he was struggling with a decision. “I do have an ulterior motive.”
“Oh, here we go.”
“It’s not bad.” He questioned himself a bit. “At least, I wouldn’t call it that.”
“What is it, Tristan?”
“I’ve been looking into something, inspired by your situation. I assure you that I told no one about you, but I found something.” He thought some more. “Something you might be interested in.”
“Spit it out.”
He squinted his eyes and pinched his fingers together. “There’s a tiny...really tiny; teeny tiny group of people forming ‘round these parts.”
She pushed off of the back of her chair and sat up as straight as she could, almost threateningly. “And who are these people?”
He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “People like you, but different. Your ability has a lot to do with the mind. Theirs? Not all of them. From what I can tell, they can put on quite a show.”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know the specifics. I know only that they’re looking for others. There’s a sort of...what might you call him? A vanguard. He claims to be looking out for the best interests of each individual, and he won’t send you to them if you don’t want to go. I don’t know if he has an ability of his own, and he doesn’t know about you, but—”
“Then how do you know anything about him? You’re contradicting yourself.”
“He knows that I know someone.”
“Tristan!”
“What? I didn’t give him your name.”
“Someone with enough motivation could connect the dots. Did you tell him what I could do?”
“No, of course not.” He shook his head, but it was more like a fish, wandering back and forth in the water until it transformed into a nod. “I mean, yes.”
She closed her eyes in disappointment and exhaled. “Dammit.”
“I think we can trust him.”
“Why is my life suddenly filled with people learning my secret?”
He leaned back and held his hands up in defense. “Hey, I only told that one guy. Kathleen introduced you to Denton, and you went to that Magnus on your own.”
He was right. She and Denton had approached Magnus Shapiro of their own free will. She had spent years under the protection of Alec, using her ability a lot, and making sure that she did so wisely, but never really learning anything. Maybe it was time to take a leap of faith. If her friends were okay with this, what else did she have to lose? She fell back into her chair. “I presume you’ve set up a meeting with him?”
There was a knock at the door.
“Tristan?” she asked like a mother, trying to get her child to confess to a crime.
“Yes, I did.”
She interlocked her fingers and rested her hands on her belly. “Well, it’s not my door he’s knocking on.”
“Are you sure? I can send him away.” Tristan would honestly agree to her wishes, but obviously hoped that she would say no.
He knocked again.
“Answer the freaking door and we’ll discuss this later!” But she didn’t say freaking.
He left and greeted their guest. She couldn’t hear Tristan address him, but the stranger insisted that he just call him René. They walked into the living room and sat down. She and Tristan explained to him what she could do; her range and limits. He listened carefully and respectfully, speaking only once they were finished. He nodded his head in understanding. “Yes, you were on the first of two drafts of our list.”
“Pardon?”
“We were, at one point, capable of finding and tracking all people with abilities.”
“But you can’t do that anymore?” Starla asked.
“What allowed us to do this was stolen from us, but don’t worry. The person who stole it is not capable of using it himself. So you’re safe; from him, and from us.”
Tristan was offended by this. “Why would she need to be safe from you?”
René adjusted himself and prepared to explain. “There is an ancient parable about a man who could read minds. He lived in a world where special abilities were common, but his ability was rare. It was coveted by many, but feared by most. It was for this reason that he kept his power to himself. But one time he accidentally let slip what he could do at an interview for a job. Without hesitation, the interviewer removed a letter opener from his desk and stabbed the telepath in the neck in an attempt to kill him. He just barely failed to reach his goal, and the telepath lived, but others like him were not so fortunate. The key to killing someone who knows your actions as you think of them is to wait as little as possible to act on your thoughts.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Tristan was even more discouraged than before the little story.
“I am telling you this,” René said, “because I do not wish for your lovely friend to end up like the man in the story. And neither does my partner. However, there is an associate of ours that I fear does not feel the same way. I believe that he covets abilities because he does not have one of his own. He may not even yet know this about himself.”
“Yet he’s still part of your group?”
“He is our founder. It would not be so easy to rid ourselves of him. And he is in a relationship with the only member of our group who actually matters.” He spoke further with finality. “Besides, he is not the only one we would have to fear. We created the second draft of our list for the singular reason of removing you from it. This is my way of protecting you, Starla. I have a responsibility to keep you from the people I know. Unfortunately, you will have to be responsible for protecting yourself from everyone else.” He stood up and took a deep breath. “I urge you, Miss Wakefield, if you are ever approached by anyone you do not already know...” he paused for effect before continuing, “lie. Or run.”
After René left, she received a call on Tristan’s phone from Magnus Shapiro, telling her that he would be flying down to Kansas City with Denton and newcomer, Ling in tow. He claimed that they had felt a pull towards her that was stronger than ever, and that it had begun not five minutes earlier. Even though she had only known the stranger for a few minutes, his words seemed phenomenally more valid than anything she had heard in her entire life. It was like he knew exactly what to say to her to get her to believe him. But the three coming from Hudson already knew about her. It was too late to lie, so she would have to run. “Tristan. I have to get out of the city. Find the number for the pool. I need Alec back here now.”

Confidentiality Agreement
Once Kathleen had all of the information, she put on her game face and took charge. She ordered Tristan to go fill the car up with gas so that Alec could take a shower, then she started packing Starla’s clothes for her. Reading Kathleen into the situation was probably the best decision she ever made. She had become instantly protective of Starla. She zipped up the suitcase and carried it over to the door, looking outside to find that her brother had not yet returned. “Who is the closest geographically of your confidants?”
“Well, that would be Marissa in Winnipeg, Manitoba,” Starla answered. “Why?”
She looked at her watch as Tristan was pulling up. “You can trust these people, right?”
“Well, yeah, I can. But Marissa is even younger than me. I’ve become friends with her parents, but it took some time and convincing.”
“I hope it was enough. You should go up there, as long as the people from Hudson aren’t aware of her.”
“They’re not, but I’m not so sure about this. I mean, that man told me to stay away from people I don’t already know.”
“You barely know them. You’ve not met this woman who knows languages, and who knows who else they’re bringing?”
“Don’t you trust Denton?”
“No. It’s not like we’re married or anything.”
Starla had no argument, but still wasn’t sure this was enough to run off. She was just getting comfortable in Kansas City. She wasn’t being stalked by the government, or some other shadowy organization. She just wasn’t certain about a small group of normal people who hadn’t given her reason to fear them.
Kathleen could sense her persistent hesitation. “Tristan found this guy and his people in the area, right?”
“Yes.”
“If for nothing else, you should put some kilometers between you and them. Like, maybe around 1300. If one of them is worried about the others, then we should be worried about them too.”
“That makes sense.”
She looked at her watch as Tristan was walking up the steps. “I’m sure Alec is almost out of the shower. It’ll take you about seven hours to get there, so Tristan and I will help you get into the car now.”
“Thanks for this, Kathleen.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re family.”
After asking Marissa's parents for permission to visit her in person, Starla received a sort of telepathic call from another of her confidants, Sendoa Michel who lived near the edge of Bayonne. He had just gotten back home from a day of looking for work and was trying to relax on his balcony. Hey, Starla. How’s it going?
Not the best. I’m closing ranks, and going to see Marissa. You haven’t told anyone else about us, right?
Of course not, he replied. Tell me what happened.
Well, what happened with you?
We’ll get to that later.
Both Tristan and I found other people with abilities. One of them told me that I should basically not trust anyone else for the rest of my life.
That sounds kind of harsh, but I can’t say that I’m totally against it.
Are you surprised that I’m not alone?
He shrugged his shoulders. It would be a grand statistical anomaly if you were the only one.
Starla agreed. Did you need me for something?
Well, I have been having this strange feeling about a meeting that’s coming up. It’s a super secret job offer of some kind. I’m not supposed to tell anyone that it’s even happening, and you telling me that you’ve just discovered others like you has only got me worried more.
Why would it worry you? Besides it being so mysterious? she added.
I don’t think it has anything to do with you, but when they contacted me, it just reminded me of when you and I first met, and when I first met Alec. Ya know, just the way they talked.
I don’t understand.
The job is in Usonia, Starla. It’s a factory in the middle of nowhere in a place called Brazil, Indiana. Hell they want with a guy like me? I hear the owner is originally from Spain, but his hometown is over an hour and a half away. I’m concerned that he may know about you.
Maybe you’re just suspicious of everyone you meet, like I’m becoming now.
Yeah, maybe.
Do you want me to stay for the meeting? Starla asked.
If you’re not busy.
I’m just riding with Alec. Here, say hi. Starla pulled Sendoa all the way into her body. “Hi, Alec, it’s Sendoa.”
“Nice to meet you, Sendoa. Are you one of Starla’s multiple personalities?”
“What?!” Sendoa yelled from Starla’s body.
“I’m kidding,” Alec said with a laugh. “We’ve all become so uptight and serious. Let’s try to get back to the joy of life.”
Sendoa didn’t reply.
“Never mind. Go back to whatever you two were talking about. I’m just the driver.”
“Right...” Starla and Sendoa went back to France together. That was weird, he said.
We are all really stressed out, she explained.
There was a knock on the door.
You’re meeting here?” she asked.
Yes, just another weird thing. Stay here with me, but don’t say anything.
I won’t, I promise.
Sendoa opened the door and let two men inside. They introduced themselves as Kip and Alonso Silva.
“I’m sorry to overstep, but I’m not sure what this is about,” Sendoa admitted after offering them drinks and a place to sit.
“Honestly,” Kip said, “I’m not sure about this either. But Mister Silva here thinks that you could help us.”
“Don’t be rude.” He turned to Sendoa. “A friend I knew in secondary school has mentioned you before,” Alonso said. “She told us how you cared for her in college, and kept her secret about how she grew up with Amadesin parents.”
“I am known to be a confidant of sorts, yes.”
Starla accidentally took control of Sendoa’s body when she laughed, which meant that, from the visitor’s perspectives, he was the one laughing. Sendoa took control back and coughed apologetically. “Sorry about that. I have many secrets.”
“We’re counting on that. And we’re hoping you could keep one more.” Alonso gave his associate the floor, “Kip?”
Still hesitant, Kip went into his pitch. “We are in need of further employees at our factory. One of our managers is leaving us because her wife got a job on the other side of the country. You see, Mister Michel, we have an extremely low number of employees. Most of production is...automated. We simply must retain at least eleven people in management, or we fall apart. It takes a very long time for us to hire someone new under normal circumstances, but we do not have a lot of time. We would need you to start right away, and we need to be able to trust you from this day on.”
Alonso continued the pitch, “I remembered our mutual friend talking about you, and knew that you were our best option for our confidentiality requirements.”
“Look,” Sendoa began, “I actually know what it’s like to work somewhere that required confidentiality. I won’t even tell you about it. That’s how reliable I am. I assure you that, whatever it is, I can and will keep trade secrets from the outside. I could leave the job later with bad blood, and I still wouldn’t tell anyone what I know. You most certainly can trust me.”
Alonso looked to Kip who gave a nod of approval, clearly still worried that they weren’t able to process him the way that they were used to. “Okay, then I suppose it’s time for me to show you,” Alonso said, standing up.
“Show me what?”
“Please do not freak out,” Kip urged him.
Alonso pulled a hair out of his own head and blew on it. A confused Sendoa lost track of it as it drifted away, but soon it showed itself more clearly. A gray light shone from the floor and expanded until revealing a door out of which Alonso’s clone came out and shook Sendoa’s hand.
Tristan had been right about René’s people, and Starla had been right about there being people with special abilities that didn’t have anything to do with just having a better brain. He’s even more amazing than I am, she said through their psychic connection.
“This is the secret you would have to keep,” Kip told him. “This is why we have so few employees. Most of the work is done by guys like our friend here.”
Sendoa smiled widely. “When do I start?”

Isolate
Starla and Alec arrived at Marissa’s house just before dinner time. Things were a bit awkward at first, so Mrs. Mendegale decided to make things more awkward by starting the conversation. “So, Miss Wakefield, I am pleased to finally have proof that Marissa’s penpal isn’t a forty-year-old man in his mom’s basement.”
Alec nearly spit out his food.
Mother!” Marissa chastised.
“Don’t insult the company, dear,” Mr. Fanchild complained to his wife.
“I’m just trying to lighten the mood,” Mrs. Mendegale insisted.
Alec nodded and spoke before finishing his green bean, “that’s what I’ve been trying to convince my friends.” He squinted and jabbed his fork towards her. “You and I understand each other, Mrs. Mendegale.”
She smiled, and for a few minutes, the only noise heard was the sound of silver on porcelain.
Starla caught Mr. Fanchild eyeing her wheelchair a few times, unable to resist his curiosity, but also unable to voice it. “I have a rare degenerative disease,” she volunteered. “They haven’t even had time to name it after someone yet. The full name is something I can’t pronounce, but that’ll probably change to Wakefield Syndrome in a few years.”
“I’m sorry, I was staring.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she told him genuinely. “The disease operates with a bottom-up structure. It started in my toes and has worked its way up to my waist. Eventually, it will reach my neck and I’ll be fully locked in. The doctors aren’t sure whether I’ll even be able to move my eyeballs or eyelids.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, but this time for a different reason.
“Starla, Alec, and I are going to meet some friends at the skating park,” Marissa said, changing the subject. “We’ll need to leave soon.”
“I wish you wouldn’t go there,” Mrs. Mendegale said. “It’s far too dangerous. And what about her wheelchair?”
“Well, it will roll down the ramp a lot better than my feet do, so I think she’ll be all right.”
“That’s not funny.”
“So is your face.”
Mrs. Mendegale closed her eyes and sighed before looking to Alec, the only other adult in the room besides her husband. “She learned how to think for herself last week, and we haven’t figured out how to reset her to her factory settings.”
She gave her mother a playful grimace as the only reply.

Marissa pushed Starla down the sidewalk while Alec meandered in the street nearby. “I’m not sure if I’m up for a large crowd tonight,” Starla admitted. “Do you think there will be a lot of people at the skate park tonight?”
“We’re not going to the skate park. We’re going to The Dust Fountain.”
“No one goes there,” Alec said. “Why are we?”
“I have a present for you.”
“And what might that be?”
“Well,” she began, “Tristan found that superhero league in Missouri, and Sendoa met that cloner guy in France, I figured it was time for me to contribute.”
“You don’t mean...”
“I do. I too found someone else with superpowers.” Marissa reached down to give Starla a hug around her neck. “It would seem that you’re all coming together like a jigsaw puzzle. I say that it’s meant to be.”
“Marissa,” Starla whined. “I came here to isolate myself from these people.”
“She’s not a these people. She’s my best friend.”
“Therasia?” Alec guessed.
“That’s right.”
“Why didn’t you tell us about her before?” Starla asked.
“You asked me to keep your secret, and she asked me to keep hers. But you’re here now, and I’ll be the last to admit that death comes for us all, but I kind of feel like you should meet her before you stop being able to speak. Don’t wanna be morbid or anything.”
Alec looked like he was planning an escape route.
“It’s fine,” Starla said to calm him down. “She’s right. I’m not going to be myself for much longer. I have very little to lose. Maybe René was wrong. Maybe I’m the one person who doesn’t have to fear people finding out about abilities. What’s the worst they could do to me?”
Alec moved over and stopped the wheelchair by the armrests. “I can think of a thing or two, and I’m not the psychopath. Imagine what they could come up with.”
“If I do imagine that, am I not one of the psychopaths?”
“Starla,” he said in his fatherly voice.
“You can leave,” she said.
“Like hell,” he said, releasing her.
They came up on the Dust Fountain, an ancient relic of a time when the local government was attempting to revitalize the area decades ago. The commissioning of the large fountain nearly bankrupted them. If not for a rich man dying during his travels west who fell in love with the town and bequested his fortune to it, the fountain could have been all that remained. Instead, it was left almost perfectly alone; a kind of holy ground to act as a reminder of what might have been. It was never cleaned or maintained, and was only allowed visitors on rare spiritual occasions, but still it remained standing tall. Through rain and wind, it never crumbled, and no one really knew why. “Won’t we get caught here?” Alec asked as they approached. “I assume people walk by all the time.”
“Sure, if we’re above ground,” Marissa agreed. “But we’re going downstairs.”
After they had finished lifting Starla’s chair into the fountain, Marissa took a water bottle out of her purse and stuffed it inside the mouth of the large horse statue. “Therasia’s cousin discovered this,” she went on as the water drained from the bottle. “Rain can’t reach it accidentally, but some kind of catch is released when it fills up with enough water.” Once the bottle had been emptied, the entire statue twisted and revealed a winding ramp. “She’s hoping to use this as her superhero lair some day. No one else is aware of its existence, as far as we can tell.”
“Oh, my God,” Starla said. “This is amazing!”
“It’s like it was designed for you. You would think they’d have built it with stairs.” She took control of the wheelchair and headed down backwards, keeping Starla from rolling too quickly. “We have to hurry. Once the water drains all the way, the statue closes back up on its own.”
“This is brilliant,” Alec admired.
“Be prepared to say that again.”
They reached the bottom of the ramp and found themselves in the lair’s antechamber. Lit torches lined the wall, yet it was unrealistically cold. A girl walked in from a door on the other side of the room. She outstretched her arm while she was still a good distance from them, as if to shake their hands. “You must be Alec and Starla.” A large flame slowly grew from her hand and crackled softly. “My name is Therasia Jarvi. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Spirited Away
Starla, Alec, Marissa, and Therasia spent hours down in the fountain lair, discussing and demonstrating various aspects of their abilities. Though she has met others with abilities, she related to Therasia the most. Perhaps it was as simple as being around the same age. The three of them reluctantly went back home once it had become too late, but they made plans to meet up again the next day.
“You know who would love to meet her?” Alec asked when they were back topside.
“Karam?” Starla assumed.
“Karam,” Alec confirmed.
“That little pyro,” Marissa laughed.
Starla looked at her watch. “Egypt is just waking up right now, so I’ll contact him while I’m sleeping. As long as that would be okay with Therasia.”
“We’ve actually discussed it. She trusts me to only trust people she can trust.”
Starla giggled. “So, that’s a yes.”

After helping her into the guest bed, Alec slipped in next to her and fell asleep right away, exhausted from the day’s activity. Starla always had trouble sleeping like a normal person, so she sent her Egyptian friend, Karam a telepathic ping, knowing that her body would be forced to cycle itself down with her consciousness away. She waited for twenty minutes or so, but he wasn’t answering. Either he was busy or dead, so she decided to jump into his body and make sure things were okay. She found herself in an unfamiliar location. It was a busy marketplace that looked like it could have been in Egypt, but upon closer inspection, none of the products being sold were labeled with Arabic. She wasn’t completely sure because she had never studied it, but it appeared to be Greek. And her environment was an unusual shade of purplish-blue, like she was seeing the world through tinted lenses.
When she looked down, she saw her own body, wearing her own nightclothes, which was not correct. She should have been seeing the body of the person she was possessing. She walked over to a nearby motorcycle and tried to see herself in its mirror, but she had absolutely no reflection. This was not normal. As she was looking around, hoping to stumble across answers in the fruits and vegetables, she saw an old man who appeared to be watching her curiously. She looked behind her back, but there was nothing interesting. She moved to the right, and then the left. The man’s eyes followed her. “Who are you?”
He tilted his head to the other side and smiled. “Spyridon Colonomos. Don,” he amended. “And you?”
“I don’t know that I should tell you my name.”
“That’s fair. Let’s go back in time so we can prevent me from telling you mine.”
“You can do that?”
Don laughed exuberantly. Anyone in the market with decent hearing should have turned to look, but they didn’t. They could see each other, but no one could see them. “I cannot.”
“So you’re like me.”
“No. I’m older. You’re like me.”
“Semantics,” she said with a shrug. She looked back at the shopping people. “Where are we?”
“Greece; where I’m from. I came to check in on a friend, but my body is actually in Finland right now.”
“Ah.” She pointed to herself. “Canada.”
He nodded politely.
“Can you possess other people, err...?”
“Why would I be able to do that?”
“I guess we’re not the same.”
“No. But something drew us together. Right now, we are in the netherworld.”
“The whatnow?”
“I don’t really know what to call it, but...” He paused to scan the crowd and then pointed to a man in a gray tunic who was trying his damnedest to smell the oranges, but apparently failing. “That guy is dead.”
“How do you know?”
“Wait for it.”
As she watched, the man attempted to pick up the orange, but his hand passed right through the cart. “That’s sad.”
“Indeed.”
“So, you can see dead people?”
“Sometimes. It depends on which avenue I take. If I travel using the indigo world, I see ghosts. If I use the blue world, I don’t. I’m not sure how it all works. I can see them, but they have no idea I’m here, ya know, unless I want them to. Except for you. You could somehow see me by default.” He outstretched his arm. “Here, I’ll take you to my body so I can introduce you to my friends.”
“That’s not creepy.” But she took his hand anyway. Their surroundings blurred and zipped away from sight before revealing new surroundings. They were in a small apartment bedroom. Don’s physical body was lying in bed. It looked strangely stiff and uncomfortable, and she couldn’t figure what was wrong with it.
He seemed to notice this. “My body is in hibernation to prevent me from dying while my consciousness is away.”
“I wish I had that.”
“Oh, dear...”
As a boy came into the room snickering, Starla caught a glimpse of a young woman who was cooking breakfast. The boy approached Don’s body and tried to flick his ear several times, but it didn’t budge. Not even bears went under such kind of hibernation. Don’s spirit narrowed his brow and barked at the boy, “Hosanna. Stop trying to wake me up.”
The boy perked up and looked at Don’s spirit. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here.”
“Do you make a habit out of physically assaulting me when I’m not here?”
“Um...no, of course not. Stop talkin’ crazy.” The boy was not very convincing. “Who is this?”
“You can see her?”
“You found another one of us?” Hosanna asked. “Rather, another one of you.”
“She found me,” Don corrected, but then clarified, “well, fate found us both.”
Hosanna nodded somewhat sarcastically. “Right. She should meet Valary.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Don said. “Val, get in here!” he cried.
“Yes?” the woman asked while opening the door with her back, a mixing bowl still in hand.

Before Starla could see Valary’s full face, something pulled her away from the scene. Karam had evidently responded to her telepathic call, and was pulling her all the way to her final destination in Egypt.
“Hey, Star,” Karam said. “Sorry I didn’t answer. “My husband and I were...well, we were in the middle of something.”
No, no no no no nooo, Starla yelled. But she couldn’t get back to Don’s apartment. She sent her consciousness to random places in Greece and Finland, but none of them were right. If she wanted to form a psychic connection, it would either happen randomly, or she would have to seek out someone that she had already connected with. But that was the problem. She had never actually connected with Don or the other two. She had only come across their vicinity. There was no way to return, and there was no way to contact them in the real world. She knew his last name, but that wasn’t enough to find him. She was certainly no private investigator, and it sounded like they traveled a lot. They were lost to her forever. The more she thought about it, the less she agreed with René’s policy of hiding, and the more interested she was in finding others. She wanted to know everybody. She didn’t want to be alone.
“What’s going on?” Karam asked after she returned to Egypt.
I don’t know. Starla took control of Karam’s head and shook it slowly and deliberately. “I don’t know,” she repeated a few times.
Relay
“It sounds like crosstalk to me,” Karam said after Starla explained what had happened with the old man in Greece. He preferred to speak with her out loud, even though they were psychically connected.
I don’t know what that means.
“Well, you sent your consciousness to Egypt, and while you were doing that, this Don guy was sending his consciousness to Greece. You sort of...collided with him, and it prevented you from completing your call to me.”
How do I get back to them?
“Well, you’ve already tried what I would have suggested. It sounds like you don’t really know his phone number.” He threw up air quotes at those last words. “It was an accident. I don’t know that you could replicate it.”
Starla was silent, unable to vocalize her frustration regarding the last few weeks. She thought things couldn’t get any worse following her physical decline, but she was wrong. Something had to change, and quick.

Alec decided to take the next term of school off, and it would have been an uphill battle for Starla’s parents to try to claim that there was any reason for her to go back to tertiary school. They had no idea why her body had fallen into this condition, but they were probably more distraught over it than even her. They paid the bills and modified the house to accommodate her. They did everything right, on paper, that is. But they had a hard time looking her in the eye. They were secretly grateful for Alec’s involvement and patience. She loved them very much, but she didn’t dwell on the fact that they had grown apart. Sometimes, things like that are just unavoidable.
And so, the two of them remained in Winnipeg with Marissa’s family for the next few weeks. Starla would bring the consciousnesses of her confidants to hang out with them. Unfortunately, she could only connect with one person at a time, and Karam was hogging all the appointments so that he could be around Therasia. He had an open relationship with his husband, so there was no problem with his attraction towards her on that front. Though, there was a bit of a problem from their age difference, so he kept his feelings to himself, and also to Starla since she couldn’t help but know.
One of her confidants was too busy to hang out, however. Uruguayan-born Yenifer was always off on one crusade or another. After tertiary school, she decided to forego college and travel the developing world, providing aid to those in need. She had worked for a number of different organizations and was at present working for Food for Somalia on the outskirts of Mogadishu. It was likely the most dangerous situation she had ever been in, and she was currently calling for Starla’s help. I need you to relay messages to Chantal, Yenifer pleaded. In order for two or more of Starla’s confidants to communicate with each other, without using the telephone or letters, Starla would have to relay messages between them. She would have to send her consciousness to one location, pick up the psychic message, then send her consciousness to the other and repeat the thought. And she would have to do this over and over again, because there was no way to connect them together. It was mentally taxing, but it ultimately instilled a sense of community amongst her friends, rather than them being just a scatter of people around the world who all happened to know the same South Carolina girl.
I can do that, Starla said after jumping to Yenifer’s body. She was running through an industrial area. A large group of civilians were running beside her while some kind of small armed military force was providing cover and protection. One soldier, however, had no weapons at all. Instead, she remained up front, barreling through enemies with her bare hands like they were nothing. She clearly had some kind of superhuman strength. She was either another person born with special abilities, or part of a military supersoldier program. She could not yet rule out the latter.
We have to flee the mainland, Yenifer cried. Chantal is the closest known friendly. I need you to coordinate with her. We need permission to enter Seychelles.
I don’t think that she would have that kind of pull, Starla said.
She’ll have to contact the Coast Guard and inform them that we seek refuge from a pirate legion. Seychelles incarcerates the highest number of pirates in the world. I expect them to be sympathetic to the cause.
What have you gotten yourself into, Yenifer? Starla asked like a disappointed mother.
Don’t give me that. This is important. We’re almost to the plane. We need a place to land. Can you help or not? I can just wait until we get to a phone and do it myself.
No, no, it’s fine, Starla insisted. I can do it.
Starla kept an eye on both of them, making sure that Yenifer got to the plane safely, and that Chantal managed to get ahold of the right people. After some discussion, the Seychelles Coast Guard did agree to let them land as long as they agreed to be debriefed, and to let them handle any further piracy issues. Starla ended up staying with Yenifer for a while as she was looking for a way to get the woman with superstrength alone.
“Could you tell me your name? I always like to know who to thank for saving my life.”
Máire Lyne,” the woman said, shaking hands. “And it’s my job.”
“Forgive me, but you possess a level of strength of never seen before.” She looked down to the back of the fuselage. “And there are far more soldiers here than I remember running with us.”
“Many were waiting for us on the plane,” Máire explained.
“I don’t believe that. Do you have a superpower?”
“Of course I don’t,” Máire replied, and it was obvious that this wasn’t the first time she had been asked such a question.
“There are two people inside of my body right now. Me,” she began, “and my friend, Starla. Her body is in Manitoba right now.”
Máire was wary but noticeably excited by this. “Is that a joke?”
They provided her with a demonstration. Physical contact with a confidant and someone else on the other side allowed Starla to transfer her consciousness to that new person. She moved Máire’s mind to Marissa’s house where the gang was playing cards and telling stories. “That was amazing,” she said after returning to her own body. “She’s always been able to do that?”
Starla took over Yenifer’s body completely. “I have.”
My brother and I already know that we’re not alone. Sandro Watts works on a separate team, using darts he shoots out of his fingers. Honestly, Miss Wakefield, I would be remiss if I did not suggest to you that you strongly consider joining us.”
“Sorry,” Starla said truthfully. “I would never.”
“I understand. But remember that we’re here to help; not to hurt. My ability does not only give me physical strength. I’m also able to utilize the intelligence and wisdom of others. I always know how to find the peaceful option, if there is one. Besides, you wouldn’t have to join the paramilitary. There are other positions in the Confederacy. I’m pretty sure one of us works as an interpreter in Hudson.”
“Yes,” Starla nodded. “Ling Guo. I have encountered her. I almost forgot.”
Máire subtly shrugged her shoulders. “Just something to think about.”
“Indeed.”

Death. Death reached out to a number of passengers on the plane from Somalia to Seychelles. After having to make a slight adjustment to their flight path due to some weather, alarm bells screamed at them and the fuselage began to tear apart. Starla saw several passengers being pulled into the sky and zipping out of view.  Yenifer was about to lose her grip of the nearby cargo net when Máire grabbed her hand. “I’ll protect you.” A bright orange-yellow light came out of her, overtook Yenifer, and pulled her in. Máire had merged Yenifer’s body with her own. Starla now watched from Máire’s perspective as she struggled throughout the remaining part of the plane, merging those who happened to be strapped into their seats when the crisis struck, and were also lucky enough to be against a wall that had not yet been torn off. Though Máire seemed to feel stronger each time she merged with someone, she eventually started to feel pain once she had saved only a dozen or so others. She had just saved everyone in the fuselage, and was about to head for the cockpit when Starla’s mind was again pulled away, just like it had when she first met Don.

She found herself on the ground, in the body of a stranger. He had his arms raised upwards where the plane was headed right for him, and was expending a great deal of energy in an effort to stop it. His face felt hot and his whole body was shaking. As he concentrated, the plane slowed its descent, but it wasn’t enough. He managed to redirect the plane far enough away to keep himself from being crushed under it, but this only got him so far. It still crashed down with enough power to tremble the ground and knock him to his back. He was not there for very long, for an unseen force lifted him into the air and sent him flying towards the wreckage. He concentrated once more, and was able to slow his movement, but he still collided with a wing and remained stuck there. He was distraught, but also relieved.
Um...what just happened? Starla asked, awkwardly.
“Mon dieu!” The man turned his head as much as he could and called out, “Un survivant! I can’t move to help! Are you okay? Is anyone else in there with you?”
I’m not in the plane, Starla explained. I’m in your head. I can possess you.
He paused for a time. “I do not believe that I am in a position to doubt such a possibilité.”
What happened here?
“This plane was not supposed to be here. I stay far from the flight paths. I’m very careful! Je ne sais pas why it was so close.”
We had to redirect for weather.
“So you were on l’avion?”
No, but my mind was at the time. Did you do this?
“I can’t help it. I can’t stop it. I either attract or repel magnetic objects, but I don’t always get to choose which one, and I never get to choose to not do it at all. Jamais!”
Oh my God. There were more than two dozen people on that plane!
“Désolé, I’m so sorry!” the man cried. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We’re in the jungle. There is not supposed to be any metal!”
I had friends on that plane! They’re all dead! You killed them!
“I can’t believe this!”
“Hello?” the voice of Máire came from below, but they could not lift the man’s head high enough to see.
Starla took control of the man’s body. “Máire? Is that you?”
“Is that, uh...oh, wait. Starla?”
“Yes! How did you survive?”
“When I merge with other people, I become stronger, remember?”
“Yeah, but...I mean...it was a plane crash.”
“Well, I’ve felt better before, but I jumped out before it crashed, and the people I managed to save are all fine. We lost four refugees, two of my men, the pilot, and co-pilot. That is, unless the cockpit survived.” She directed her words elsewhere, “Meriden and Duvall, go check.” She returned to Starla. “What are you...I mean, what is this man doing lying down on the wing?”
“He’s magnetic. He pulled the plane out of the sky.
Pause.
“Máire?”
“Yeah, sorry, just—he did what?”
Je ne le peux pas contrôler!” the man said for himself.
Voilà pourquoi vous êtes coincé là.”
“Oui!” Then he switched to Standard C so that others could understand him, “the only time I don’t either attract or repel metal is when I’m asleep.”
Starla felt a sharp but rather mild sting in the man’s leg. “Did you just shoot me?” he asked in a hazy voice.
“Oui,” was the last thing she heard Máire say before losing the psychic connection.

Starla’s mind was sent back to Canada where her body had been sleeping next to Alec. Startled by the ordeal, she jumped out of bed and let out a tight scream.
Alec jumped as well, “what? What is it?” He reached over and turned on the light. “Are you okay?”
She rambled, and it felt like she was screaming, but she was subconsciously trying to remain rather quiet. “There was a plane crash! People died, Alec! And I was in the mind of the killer. Well, he wasn’t really the killer, but he killed people. Accidentally. You see, he can control magnets. Well, he can’t. That’s the problem. Apparently metal just sticks to his body...or it flies away from him. I don’t really understand how it works, but he pulled an entire plane from the sky, and it nearly crashed into him. And people died!”
“Starla.”
“What?” she hissed back at him.
“You’re standing.”
“What are you talking about? Of—” She stopped herself. He was right. She was standing on her own two legs, in her own body. She hadn’t been able to do that for months. “I’m standing. Holy shit!”
He smiled with shock. “You’re standing, Starla.”
She opened her mouth, wanting to cry out and alert the world of the development. She could stand. She could probably walk. She could probably even run! But she couldn’t. That was impossible, to everyone else, at least.
Alec was on the same wavelength. “You’re right. We can’t tell anyone. And we have to get the hell out of here. Now.”
Fortunately, the guest room was on the first floor of the house, and fairly separate from the rest of the bedrooms, otherwise someone would have heard her scream, and maybe even her rant. They quickly grabbed their belongings and haphazardly stuffed them into their bags. She took them out to the car while Alec was stuffing her now former wheelchair in the boot.
“Alec, is this temporary?”
“Starla, you know that I would never lie to you.”
She shook her head, indicating that she had no idea what he meant by that.
“No,” he clarified. “As long as you stay in your own body from here on out.”
“Promise.”
“Bullshit.”

Leaf on the Wind
Eight hours into the trip, they were near Chicago, and Starla woke up confused. She tried working things out in her head, but was having trouble making the necessary connections of logic. “We...um, so.”
“Yes?” Alec asked.
“Why are we trying to leave again?”
“Because you can walk again, and we have no medical way to explain that to others.”
“But we can trust Marissa.”
“We can, but not her parents. They don’t know about your ability, remember?”
“Right, right,” Starla remembered, and thought this over for the next ten minutes or so. “My parents don’t know about me either.”
He exhaled deeply. “I know that. I knew we had to leave, but I don’t know where we’re going.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “But you’ve been driving too long. Pull over and get some sleep. I’ll drive for a little bit.”
“That’s too risky.”
“You said that I wouldn’t go back to the way I was as long as I stayed in my body.”
“I may have jumped the gun one that one,” Alec admitted.
Can I join the party? Jackson, one of Starla’s psychic confidants, asked of her through a connection. He was the only one of her friends who was somehow capable to sending his consciousness to her without her prompting. They thought maybe he had the same ability, but he was unable to replicate the phenomenon with anyone else. Alec called this some kind of statistic; that one in eight people were possibly capable of such a thing, but just had no way to attempting it. Starla just called it a happy accident.
She yawned before responding since her brain was tired and muddled. What party?
Everyone is introducing you to people with special abilities. Only Cam and I are left, Jackson replied.
She laughed out loud, then began to translate the conversation to Alec. “Who do you have for me?”
A whole group, Jackson said with excitement. The rest of them are out on a mission, but one of them had some business back here in England.
“A mission? They work for the government too?”
No. They formed their own organization. Apparently one of them turned evil...or was always evil? I’m not entirely sure. But he can fly.
“The evil guy?”
No, the one I met.
“Starla,” Alec jumped in. “I don’t know that you should be talking to him like that. You could relapse.
“My brain is still in my body,” Starla argued. “His is the one that’s moved. I should be fine.”
“You should be fine,” Alec began, “but there was also no real reason for your recovery. We don’t know what’s happening. We have to be careful.”
“I still need to talk to my friends, dad,” she spat.
“Your funeral,” was all he said.
And then it happened. She lost feeling in her toes, and then her feet, and then all the way up her legs. But then it continued. Her stomach felt stiff, and her heart was beating slower than normal. She shook her neck out of instinct, but the feeling there was lost too. Before she had the chance to say something out loud, she stopped being able to speak a word. She was fully locked in.
Alec began screaming at her in slow motion. She couldn’t react, and she couldn’t respond. He pulled over and tried to examine her, but there was nothing he could do. She thought she heard him say something about hospital, but the words were too hard to make out, and she was drifting away.
She felt herself floating in the air. No, not floating. Flying. The winds rushed under her chest and through her legs. But they weren’t hers. She was in the body of someone else. The name was Arnett. Gus Arnett. He was smiling and soaring along the White Cliffs of Dover. They felt familiar and comforting, just like Cumberland Island. She smiled along with him, and they did not speak to each other. They just kept flying. She didn’t know how she had formed a psychic connection with someone she knew of, but had not met, but it was a gift. After all this time of being unable to control her own body, this was more than a step up. She was a leaf on the wind. No one could catch her. No one could stop her. She could die happy, for she had experienced this.
After her flight session was over, she moved across the world to see her friends one last time. Tristan and Kathleen were having a meeting with Denton, Magnus Shapiro, and Ling in Kansas City. Sendoa was at orientation for his new job at the cloner’s factory in Brazil, Indiana. Marissa was back in Winnipeg, trying to get ahold of Alec to ask him where he and Starla were. Karam and his husband were on their way from Egypt to Finland, hoping to track down the three people with special abilities that Starla had met. Yenifer and Chantal were in some kind of Confederacy quarantine together, hopeful that they would get out soon, but fearful that they might never be let free. Jackson was watching Gus fly back to the ground. Cam was tutoring Quang, one of her students in Vietnam, but it looked more like she was learning from him.
Starla’s body remained under observation in a hospital in Chicago for a few days before being moved closer to her parents. After some renovations, her family had successfully built a tiny little medical facility in her old bedroom. It was fully equipped with everything she would need to live as comfortably as possible. But still, she ended up spending the next several months sharing Cam’s body with her as she went about her life. It was just too painful for her to remain in her own immovable body. She had been rendered completely paralyzed, and didn’t even have control over her eyes. But one day, she felt an unusual sensation, and returned to her body to have a look. She found herself in the middle of being murdered.

Death Knell
Starla soon learned that her confidant, Cam’s student Quang Phan, had his own ability. He was the final piece of the puzzle; or rather, he was the last person with abilities she would have the pleasure of meeting. He was born with this innate understanding of how things were measured. He could instantly tell the distance between two objects, their weight, and just about anything else about them that could be quantified. He and Starla grew close over the months. Even though he was several years her junior, she felt a bond to him. He became her little baby brother. The Vietnamese education system was a little different than the Usonian one, but he was currently in the equivalent of primary school. Because of his ability, he was exceptionally good at math, but excelled in most of his classes. He struggled a bit with history, and so Cam was devoting extra time to tutor him. Starla would help as well, and even secretly taught the rest of the classes on rare occasions to give Cam’s mind a break.
Each time one of her friends or family members left, she crossed them off her mental list of greatest hits. This gave her the idea to do the same with her confidants abroad, and everyone who knew about her ability, including Ling, René, and Máire, even though she didn’t get the chance to know them very well. Karam managed to track down Don and his friends in Finland, so that was a nice touch. After she was done, she intended to never see them again. Though she had given up trying to kill herself, she still considered all of this to be the end. She would have to stop butting in on Cam’s life sooner or later. As they say, as fate would have it, she would be forced into this decision sooner.
She was taking in a play with Cam and her colleagues when she felt something she had not experienced before. It wasn’t so much of a feeling as it was a sound. This low-pitched hum rang in her ears, and coaxed her into returning to her body. Once she had, she discovered that she was not alone. Though she was on the floor, and turned toward the darkness under her bed, she could sense two people in the room with her. “Don’t make me do this,” one pleaded to the other.
“I’m sick of caring what other people want or need,” the one further away from her said back. Though Starla had never met anyone who drank alcohol, this man sounded about like the actors in the anti-drug videos she watched in health class.
“She’s just a girl. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“She can’t move. What does it matter?”
“She can’t move because of her ability,” the first man explained. “I can tell you this much, but I can’t tell you why.”
“Again, what do I care?”
“Because, you idiot, if you take her ability, it could happen to you.”
“Then you should have no problem with me giving it a shot.”
“I beg of you, don’t do this. And don’t make me be a part of it.”
“You’re the only way,” the leader said. “And I’m tired of your complaints, Ambrose. You want to do this,” he ordered.
“I want to do this,” Ambrose repeated in a monotone voice. But then he leaned down to Starla and whispered, “I’m sorry.” This was more than just threats by domination. This was mind control. The man in charge had an ability, and either this Ambrose fellow was a scientist, or he had one as well. For some reason, he could give other people abilities, but the conversation implied that this was not a good thing for the original user.
And then it was over. She was dead. She didn’t feel pain, and she didn’t go anywhere. For a second or two, all she could see was gray. Out of the corner of her eye was some kind of pristine white desk, but then she was back in her room, looking down at her now dead body. All around her was indigo, just like when she first met the spirit-walker, Don in Greece. Though she had seen this indigo world before, it instantly felt different. She was wearing a gray tunic. She felt better rested than she had in her entire life, but she also felt more vulnerable, like the slightest encounter with a mildly sharp object would pierce her skin and drain her of all her blood. She could also feel the seconds go by, to the same accuracy that Quang seemed to be able to.
Ambrose moved over to his master and did something with his hands to give him Starla’s ability. The master smiled under his own accomplishment. He gave the impression that he had experienced this before, and that it was amazingly refreshing. But then his face changed. He looked like he had just been drugged, and was having trouble keeping his eyelids open. Perhaps it was the alcohol. “What...?” he started to ask. “What did you do to me?”
“I did what you asked,” Ambrose said with no hint of irony. “Starla’s ability is now running through your blood. You should be able to jump to any body you wish within hours, maybe days.”
“No,” the master argued. “This is different. It’s different than last time.” His knees buckled and he had to catch himself on the corner of Starla’s dresser.
Ambrose made no attempt to help him. “I honestly don’t know what’s happening. But I warned you that her ability would be dangerous. We just don’t know enough about it. With time, I might have been able to find a way to do this without killing, or stop whatever it is that’s happening to you right now.”
You’re going to help me,” the master barked at him as he slipped to the floor.
Ambrose reached down and tried to help the master up, but was struggling. He was now able to fight the compulsion. “Your control is wearing off. I don’t have to do what you say anymore.”
“This was your plan. You did this!” the master screamed.
“I’m telling you that I didn’t.”
And then the master used the last of his power to let out one final order. Before dropping his lids completely and drifting off to wherever he was going, he said to Ambrose, “you’re crazy if you think I’m going tomi believe that you didn’t do this on purpose!
Unfortunately, Ambrose did believe such a thing, and so he went crazy. He yelled at the top of his lungs for a few seconds before slinking into the opposite corner of the room and rocking back and forth. Starla could do nothing but watch as her parents burst into the room, first looking at the sleeping master, and then over to the literally insane Ambrose, and then finally to their daughter’s body. Her father started to cry out from agonizing loss. Her mother dove down to Starla and frantically searched for a pulse, of course coming up empty.
It was done, and so Starla walked away, not wanting to see her family in this condition. She laughed to herself, but then remembered that she was a ghost, and no one could hear her, so she laughed as loud as she could. For it was then that she realized she had spent so much time crossing her friends off of that mental list, but she had now hit that final entry. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her imaginary list. With the other hand, she mimed the checkmark next to her own name. Then nothing happened. There was no bright light inviting her to heaven, nor a reaper man to pull her away. She could find no signs directing her to “cross over”. No. She just remained there. Alone. As a ghost. Her story was not quite finished.

Your Funeral
The day after someone dies, their family goes through this death ritual called Familiar Mourning. Those close enough to the family, and close enough geographically speaking, sit around a dimly lit room and hold conversations. In the strictest of traditions, this part of the ceremony must be performed in a temple, or otherwise on holy ground, but modern times had changed things. They were often performed at home, and the majority of morgues had been expanded to include accommodating rooms. Family and friends gather around candles to express their gratitude towards the deceased, and to tell stories of their life in small groups. Quiet was the watchword during these ceremonies. Quiet and darkness.
Starla’s parents and Alec were in attendance at the morgue, of course. But Tristan and Kathleen jumped in the car and raced down so that they could be there too. Denton and his new team were having trouble getting back into the country since they were in the middle of some special research project in Texas. And Sendoa was just swamped with his new job with the man who could clone himself. Tons of people from school she never considered to be her friends showed up. Kind of tacky. And they kept acting like they had experienced some kind of profoundly influential moment with her. Much of what they said about their interactions were simply made up. Starla only listened to the beginnings of their conversations with each other. Knowing now that ghosts were real sent shivers throughout her body. How many of her relatives had she seen move on? What had she said about them while under the impression that these ceremonies were nothing but carryovers from a time of superstition and misinformation. At some point, she gravitated towards Alec who was standing alone in the corner, having no interest in participating. She tried to get his attention, but it was hopeless. She knew of only one person who could see ghosts—though there were probably more. Hopefully Don would carve out some time and scrounge up some money to come stateside for the funeral. She had no way of finding out, for her ability to jump to bodies had been removed from her during her murder.
On the following day, the funeral ceremony is performed, and a wake is often held. These are semi-private occasions, and are late enough after the passing to allow people from out of town to make travel arrangements. In cases of so-called natural deaths, this is when the body is laid to rest. But when the body must remain intact and unchanged in order to support an ongoing investigation, the funeral is skipped altogether, while the wake usually continues as planned. Having honored an obligation to the dark and quiet during Familiar Mourning, the wake is a time for loudness and joy. It’s less of a ritual, and more of a party. Though, the reason the ritual came to be was so that the deceased could move on to the afterlife with—what did the texts say—sunshine in their hearts and harmony in their souls. So the rowdy nature of these get-togethers was not completely unfounded.
Even though Starla’s body could not be displayed on a viewing altar since it was part of evidence, her family decided to go ahead with a funeral, and make an attempt to tone down the level of intensity of the wake. That was more Starla’s style, so she was appreciative of their decision. To her surprise, everyone showed up. Every single one of her confidants had booked tickets from far away lands. All of the people with special abilities were there as well. Those she had met in person like Magnus Shapiro and Therasia Jarvi crossed national borders. Those she had only met while in someone else’s body like Máire and Quang had dropped their busy lives for a few days. Even people she never met at all like Ling and Alonso flew in. René came in with a huge group of strangers, and she never really found out who they were, but she assumed them to have powers. People came with families of their own. Some were there with no obvious connection to anyone who knew Starla.
“I had no idea that she was so popular,” Starla’s mother remarked.
“Her life touched a lot of people, Mrs. Dawkins,” Alec replied. “That international pen pal program she founded grew larger than she thought it would.”
Her mother started tearing up. “I feel like I didn’t even know her.”
Alec wrapped his arm around her shoulders and joined her in a cry. “You knew everything about her.”
“Who did this to her? Who were those men? Did they have something to do with the pen pal network?”
He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t know who they were, but I know they had nothing to do with that.”
Spirit-walker, Spyridon Colonomos waited for Starla to finish eavesdropping before summoning her to a narrow hallway off of the chapel.
“I must say, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”
“I can imagine. Which is why you can imagine that I always do my very best to stay away from ghosts.”
“Thank you for making an exception.”
“Can you tell me what happened? On the night of your death?”
“I could,” she said. “I won’t.”
“Why not?”
“The men who did this to me are no longer a problem. They’re already in custody. One is chained to a hospital bed, and another to a padded cell. And I’m over it. I’m moving on. There’s an...undeniable feeling of freedom once you die, Mr. Colonomos. You will experience this one day. All those things you thought you cared about stop serving a purpose. And the only things that ever truly mattered were the connection you made to others.”
“You have the opportunity to communicate with the living. Very few people are given this gift.”
She smiled and sort of ignored what he said. “Those connections can’t be broken. My soul can still feel their souls.” She shook her head politely. “I don’t need to speak with them. They can hear me.”
They left it at that.
On the last full day after a death, those closest to the dead are expected to step into their loved one’s shoes by participating in their favorite activity. This could be playing a favorite sport, or eating ice cream, or just reading a good book. For Starla, it was petting feral horses on Cumberland Island. Alec had spent the last couple of days on the phone with the people in charge, requesting an exception to their strict protocols. It took the entire time, but he was able to secure a reservation for a dozen people. Starla’s parents wondered why this would be her favorite thing seeing as that she hadn’t stepped one foot on the island in her entire life. Alec simply said that it was a dream of hers. The three of them enjoyed the tour with Starla’s eight worldwide confidants, who were for the first time breathing the same air as each other. They even got lucky and met a little baby. Starla was thrilled. Alec couldn’t really explain why those eight people were with them, but assured Starla’s parents that they really did qualify for closest loved ones.
At the end of the next day, Starla said goodbye to everyone, even though they could not hear her. The seconds were dropping. She was aware of exactly when her clock was going to run out. Don popped in real quick to see her off. They opened their mouths towards each other a few times, but ultimately exchanged no further words. Death was about as much of an end as anyone gets. There was nothing more to say. Exactly four days to the minute after her death, Starla’s new ghost body collapsed, and she died for a second time. She felt herself being blissfully pulled upwards, though there was no real sense of direction. Colors flew past her one by one until she reached gray, and then she stopped.
A woman she did not know, but who felt painfully familiar to her, greeted her on the other side. “Hello.” She stepped off to reveal a crowd of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. “Welcome to...The Aggregate.” She looked pretty pleased with herself.
Starla stood for a few moments and watched as the crowd of familiar strangers attempted to greet her and bring her into the fold. But she just smiled at them. She had claimed to Don that she was done with life, but she was wrong. She wasn’t ready yet. Perhaps she never would be. “No, thanks.” She pointed her thumb behind her. “I think I’ll go back.”
“You can’t go back,” the woman argued.
“Yet, I feel like I can, and actually that I should.”
“It is true that you are one of the few of us who does not have to remain her, but there will be consequences.”
“Like what?”
“I do not have that information.”
Despite the warning, Starla left the afterlife and returned home; to her planet, that is...or plane of existence—or whatever it was. The woman had been right about the consequences, but it was more horrific than she could have imagined. All eight of her confidants, along with more than a hundred other innocent people, were killed in a plane crash. Normally, one would not attribute such a thing to a single act of resurrection, but this was different. They had all died on The Day of No Death, which should not have been possible. It really was her fault.

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