My mother’s sisters say their grandmother had it; what they, being partly Welsh, call the “sixth sense,” and my grandmother on my father’s side once claimed that her sister had it, though she didn’t call it the same thing. She called it “trouble.” Anyway, no one talked about it after my parents shut me down. They must have told them all to shut up.
Both of my parents were shrinks. My father with his doctorate in forensic psychology worked with the police department and legal system. My mother was a geriatric psychiatrist and ran her extremely efficient department in the local hospital system. It was an understatement to suggest that my parents competed with each other in just about every way. Professionally, physically (who was the most consistent and successful amateur athlete), intellectually (who read the most erudite books and articles) and sexually (who could attract the most attractive admirers whether they were acted upon or not.) Sometimes our meals were so tense with subtle and not so subtle rivalry that I developed an ulcer at age fourteen.
My unfortunate ability came to my parents’ attention when I was five. We were waiting at the airport for our connection to Phoenix to visit my father’s recently widowed mother. For a kid this age, waiting was extremely boring. A young woman sat down next to us, accompanied by a rough looking boyfriend and I gave her a long searching look. “She’s gonna have a baby!” I announced at top volume.
The girl looked horrified, the boyfriend’s mouth dropped open and my mother yanked my arm. “What are you doing?” she low-level yelled. “Why would you say such a thing to a total stranger?”
Me all innocent: “Well, because she IS. SHE’S GONNA HAVE A BABY AND IT’S A GIRL!!!!!!!!!”
My dear mother slapped me. She, being a shrink and all, supposedly did not promote physical punishment for children, but her hand shot out like a bullet and then I was wailing at the top of my lungs.
The boyfriend kept saying, “Is it true? How would that kid know? Is it mine?”
My mother pulled me off my seat and walked me hard to another row of chairs while my father looked off into the distance as if he didn’t know us Jerry Springer types. She did not question me later as I would have done if a kid of mine had said something like that. I would’ve asked her, “How did you know? Did it just pop into your head? Did you see inside her or something?” but then that would involve having believed what I said was true and there was no polite way to find out if it was. Instead, Mom wiped my face hard with a tissue that she spit into and hurt me.
The next time this happened was even worse. The whole family was attending a Fourth of July picnic with my mother’s extended family and one of the cousins brought along her boyfriend with whom, apparently, she lived. This cousin was probably in her sixties and her companion about the same. The cousin brought him over to introduce him to people and I, probably about seven by this time, said to my mother after they had walked away but still in hearing distance, “That old man is going to die real soon.”
My mother yanked me away from the picnic table and took me, by now screaming in imagined pain, to the car where she gave me a hard lecture. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing but from now on you keep your weird opinions to yourself or you’re going to be sorry! You won’t be getting any birthday OR Christmas presents OR candy for Halloween and you will go to your room after every meal without dessert and that is final! One more time you open your big mouth to say something like that and all your fun will be over!”
Well, she scared me good. No Halloween candy? Already I was a chocoholic. And no Christmas presents? What? I zipped my mouth shut and that was that. Never mind that two weeks later the cousin’s boyfriend dropped dead at the supermarket, having one of those “widow maker” heart attacks. Never mind that that sobered up my parents real quick and now they wanted to examine me for “psychological research” and find out exactly how I’d made that prediction, did it happen frequently and could I do it on command, etc. Nothing would make me talk since chocolate and Christmas were topmost in my mind and anyway, I figured they were trying to trick me.
Besides, I didn’t know how I did it myself. It just seemed natural to me to know something like that. I heard people in their heads and sometimes I saw into their bodies and I found out that deep down, they knew a lot of things about to happen to them and sometimes they even made them happen for many different reasons but they didn’t recognize this about themselves. Their own real selves were hidden from them.
“So now you’re going to be a brat and refuse to answer us?” my mother snapped in desperation and my father poured himself a shot of bourbon.
“You said no Halloween candy,” was my answer.
“Oh, that,” she said, and my father joined her on the arm of her chair. They both looked at me intently, gearing up their professional psychological powers. “That was different. Now we’re doing science. It’s important that you help us. You could be helping lots of people.”
Did she really think I was that stupid? “Not falling for tricks,” I said.
“I am not tricking you! Jesus!” she yelled.
But I kept silent and eventually they gave up.
After that, I told no one anything related to my little talent. Over the years as I developed into an older child and then a teenager, my secret faculty came in handy. Often it was painful to hear such things but I learned to take the good with the bad. It was far from pleasant to overhear the thoughts of certain popular girls who thought I was “immature” and a dweeb, not to mention FAT. Was I fat? Not really, just stocky, thick around the middle. And I wore glasses and my mother made me keep my hair in a stupid short do when I wanted to grow it out long and wear a ponytail.
Then there were the boys, ugly or weird ones who thought I was hot, and sexy ones who either didn’t know I was alive or considered me icky. I found out I had bad breath and learned to brush my tongue. I learned that I said stupid opening conversation lines and listened to others to find out how to do that better. And though I was smart enough to get good grades on my own, if there was something I didn’t know on a trig test, I could try really hard to listen in on the mental figuring of the class genius and sometimes copy some of that onto my own paper.
This still wasn’t something I could necessarily do on command. Like I couldn’t just decide I wanted to hear Seth Goldstein’s or Sally Wynn’s thoughts and read away. It was more like if I concentrated on someone, one or two of their musings might pop into my brain or more likely, out of nowhere, someone’s inner workings just appeared in my mind.
My parents’ relationship deteriorated over the years. Had it ever been good? They sometimes mentioned having met in San Francisco, he at some convention where he read his first paper and she on vacation with her then boyfriend, and it was love at first sight or something akin to that. But now they rarely said anything civil to each other and the tension in the house was thick enough to almost call for an oxygen mask to breathe.
I was seventeen, graduating from high school in four weeks and accepted into University of Pittsburgh where I planned to major in premed to eventually become a regular doctor – maybe an ER specialist, one who did hands on caring for patients, nothing to do with their psyches! I was sick to death of hearing about mental and emotional disorders. Give me plain blood and guts and real bodies!
And then one evening at dinner, I heard something disquieting. My father was carefully separating king crab meat from the shell when into my head popped: I could get her body into that incinerator thing Eric made. He said it would burn anything down to ash.
What??? I jumped and dropped my fork. What was he talking…I mean thinking about? Racking my brain, I sort of remembered my uncle Eric, my father’s younger brother who lived in the woods and was kind of a self-made redneck, bragging about this burn barrel thingy he had copied from a neighbor and said that it burned so hot, it could get rid of an illegally hunted deer carcass if one needed to. Skull and all apparently. So, who exactly was my father thinking about burning up in that?
Then he looked across the table at my mother with a steely expression and an arched eyebrow and I knew without a doubt that his potential victim was her.
My mouth went bone dry as I felt a sudden urge to throw up and when I made a move to get up from the table, a thought from my mother darted into my brain. Just a bit of potassium chloride injected into a nostril after one of his drunken binges and I’d be rid of his arrogance forever. Like I don’t know about the women and the hidden bank accounts and sabotage he pulled when I was up for that promotion, the bastard!
OMG, I thought, why was this happening? Now I flipped a full fork on the floor, scattering rice everywhere and had to dive under the table to pick it up grain by grain. And yet the horrible thoughts kept coming.
Where would I get the potassium chloride and how to inject it without him fighting? Up the nose would hurt like hell. Maybe a Valium in his booze would put him out first? I don’t think the coroner would suspect one Valium in his system as indicating murder. I mean if someone was going to off themselves, they’d never just use one pill. I do work in the hospital but they’re very careful about staff checking out drugs and I have no rights to get any myself. Can’t alert my doctor either.
I got back up with a handful of wet rice and dumped it on my plate.
“What on earth are you doing, Riley?” my father barked. “You’re a bit old to be playing with your food, aren’t you?”
I hated his sarcasm and superiority and at times had wished he would disappear myself but now that I heard Mom planning his demise, I felt slightly tender toward him. But all those things she had listed in her head – I’d had no idea he was having affairs and hiding money and what had he done to mess up her promotion?
Actually, I could do it any way I want, Dad was now thinking, since the incinerator thing would take care of it the evidence. If a bullet remains, I could bury it in the woods out there. Didn’t Eric say I could stay at his place next month while he and that weird girlfriend of his are in Florida?
Hey, he was a forensic psychologist and should know by now how to get away with murder, right? I watched him coolly light up his after-dinner pipe and puff away with self-satisfaction. I did enjoy the aroma of his tobacco, something no doubt super expensive and sophisticated.
But why was I hearing all of this? I didn’t usually get paragraphs, just quick sentences or ideas. Was the universe protecting me somehow? What should I do? To whom could I report this and who would believe me? I think my parents had forgotten my ability so long ago or at least put it out of their minds. And suppose I did confront them with what I was hearing? Would they decide to get rid of me too?
My best friend was Nicole Charles who lived two streets over, but this wasn’t something I could tell her. She was second in the class smarts-wise, very intellectual and science oriented and she laughed at anything mystical or New Age, so the last thing she would do is believe I can hear thoughts. “You so gotta become a writer,” I can picture her saying. “Your imagination needs a practical outlet.” And if, to prove it, I tried to demonstrate by reading her own mind, nine chances out of ten, it wouldn’t work and I’d look like an idiot.
This was when I wished I had a sibling, but then my friends complained about their own sibs a lot, so chances were whoever he or she would be wouldn’t believe me either. Or even remotely like me.
I decided to try something before I left this insanely unhappy table. “Can I ask you guys a question?” I said.
My parents looked at me. “What?” said my mother.
“Do you love each other?”
Long silence and then my father, in a condescending voice, said, “Of course. Why would you ask that?” He peered at me suspiciously. Was he remembering, perhaps?
“No reason,” I said. “Kids were discussing their parents, that’s all.”
I stood up and left before they became too inquisitive.
Summer burst onto the scene and graduation was a blast. I got drunk for the first time, didn’t like it that much, puked like a volcano and went right on partying. But I noticed that alcohol shut off my ability totally and while hearing the occasional thoughts often bothered me, I realized I didn’t like to be without it. My summer job was to be a patient transport aide at Mom’s hospital. Not wanting to mess up what might be my last summer at home, I put out of my mind the treacherous thoughts of my parents. Anyway, I needed to be worry-free and sharp at the hospital in order to watch doctors at work for my own medical future.
“You’d think, having grown up with people in the field of psychology,” my father said with irritation at my choice of majors, “that you’d naturally fall into that professional area without much effort.”
“Growing up with that is exactly why I chose something else,” I retorted and he went silent.
My mother had been developing arthritis, something she frequently complained about, and was trying several things for relief. Yoga, tai chi, supplements and acupuncture but apparently, she was still in pain. Not wanting to take conventional pain meds, she decided to try bee stings, which her equally arthritic friend Lily highly recommended.
“You’re insane,” said my father who was allergic. We had an epi pen right inside the back door in a cup on the kitchen counter, one inside the front door in a little Chinese bowl, another in the master bedroom on his bedside table and one in Dad’s office. He also kept one in his car. He remembered to keep the pens up to date and ready and had only had to use one once at a barbecue in the backyard. He was not an outdoor person, so rarely came into contact with bees or wasps. If one got into the house, he would run into another room and close it while Mom or I murdered the thing.
“I may be insane,” she said, “but it works. I can’t believe the relief I get for a while. You might have heard of that old woman in the news who almost died after she was covered in stings but once they got her stabilized, she noticed all of her arthritis pain was gone and that was the last of it.”
You must know what’s coming. I probably don’t even need to report it but I will.
Dad died suddenly with anaphylaxis from a sting.
The medics assumed that he was overcome before he could reach a pen. He was in his office and somehow two bees got in there and got him. I am thinking that possibly my mother put them into the fancy humidor in which he kept his gourmet pipe tobacco and that when he reached in to pinch some out, he met a surprise. And then the epi pen he normally kept on his desk had somehow vanished and possibly all the other ones in the house did too; I will never know.
Mom was perky at Dad’s “celebration of his life” ceremony, looking quite a bit younger than usual in a formfitting black linen suit and taupe pumps, her hair full and freshly streaked. An unidentified women showed up, Hispanic looking and in her early thirties. Not as high class looking as my mother but not cheap either. I stood as close to her as possible hoping to pick up stray thoughts but all I could get was an authentic wave of misery. Nothing of the sort radiated from Mom. Au contraire, she was exuding pure glee under a façade of subdued grief. Well, at least someone would miss him.
After that, I counted the days until I could leave for college. The further away from my mother I could get, the better. It was inevitable that sometime she would become angry with me about something and I might not be lucky enough to pick up on her thoughts in time to escape. This was a case of I wish I didn’t have this ability while on the other hand I was grateful that I did.
This all happened almost four years ago. I am now in my senior year at the university and surprisingly changed my major two years before to clinical psychology. I plan to go for my masters next year and then hopefully on to my doctorate. I figure that occasionally hearing someone’s thoughts might come in quite handy in therapy settings. Also, considering my genetic background, I think it might be better if I never marry and/or reproduce.