In the summer of 1965, Atlanta’s attention hung on an irascible restaurateur who had elected to stop serving his delicious pan-fried chicken to the city rather than have to serve it to people of color. Despite the near vicinity and sensation of this societal unrest, it managed to go unnoticed by the two co-owners of Atlanta-based Eckl Pharmaceuticals. Their focus was on something else entirely.
One of the owners was Harold Bruner. At the brick serpentine office building of the pharmaceutical company, he quickened his pace to shorten the journey from accounting back to his office – where he kept his bourbon. Smalltalk prattled on after the overlong weekly financial meeting, and the slight quiver of his hands told him he was late for his ante meridiem drink. Tim Gaither was due for a closed-door meeting at any moment, and Bruner would rather not confront the urge to guzzle his liquor in front of him.
Gaither had introduced him as an accomplished drinker a week ago at a client luncheon. Though the remark was delivered in all good-humor, it had managed to knock the wind out of his sails for a long time.
Tim Gaither owned the other half of Eckl Pharmaceuticals and the two shared a unique relationship – perhaps it was even close. Bruner and Gaither purchased the promising new company from the estate of Henry James Eckl, an entrepreneurial chemist and developer of industrial fermentation processes. As businessmen and stewards of Eckl Pharmaceuticals, they were flawless.
Finally, Harold Bruner rounded the corner of his outer office door and found Tim Gaither standing behind his desk, pouring his bourbon into two of his glasses.
“Hello, Hal,” Gaither said from within the office, sliding the drink toward him. “I hope you don’t mind, but I thought I’d rummage through your liquor drawer. I’ve discovered I’m rather good at that… Rummaging, that is.” Gaither tilted his head, beaming a knowing mirth to his colleague. Bruner accepted the drink, keeping the great inward thankfulness far from his expression.
“Ah Hell, Tim. It’s a might early for hooch. You must have heavy news.”
Bruner took a seat in one of the small pair of boxlike chairs directly in front of his large mahogany desk. Gaither, still standing behind Bruner’s desk, continued the affable role reversal and sat down in the big chair of Italian leather. Bruner was always quick to apply these unspoken gestures of consociation to his partner. As fate would have it, he was afforded the larger office, the illicit attentions from a ravishing member of clerical, and – unlike Gaither – his black hair was not fading to a drab blanch of mousey gray.
Gaither gave a glance to the door that led to the outer office reception desk and said, “Are we going to leave it open?”
“Donna Sue is still on vacation.” Bruner nestled into his cramped seat, lit a cigarette and asked, “Well, let’s have it. What did you find out? They went to Chicago for a homosexual vacation, right?”
“I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but I do know that his basement is chock-full of company equipment.”
“I could’ve told you that, Tim. That was something that started back with Henry and it’s probably best that we let it go.” Bruner stared at Gaither and suddenly thought how elephantine the chair looked against the smaller frame of its occupant. The image of Gaither in his chair had a tone of whimsy. He wondered if people thought the same of him when they came into his office. Bruner took a long drag of his cigarette and slowly blew out curls of thick smoke. “Just tell me that Conley and that kid left because they fell madly in love and not because they’ve taken up with Thacker and Company… Did you see where they sleep?”
“I was not about to go upstairs,” said Gaither through an expression of aggravation. “Thacker would never abide Conley’s goof-ass personality, even if he was trying to peddle company secrets. No, I don’t think we have to worry about that – and I’m not 100% sold that Conley is queer – I’ve known the man for years.”
“Come on, Tim. That Seabolt boy quits right after Conley does and then moves in the big house with him. Conley’s probably held back all these years until his mother kicked the bucket.”
Gaither sat forward. “Do you know what I found in his lab? Psychotropics. He’s tinkering around with psychotropics, Hal – definitely LSD. What are they calling it these days – acid? I guarantee you that that Seabolt boy is tying him to the hippies and the two of them are hopping onto the illicit manufacture and distribution of the stuff. Everybody knows the feds are about to take a hard stance on it. It’s a cinch that Conley is looking to get rich when it becomes a controlled drug.”
“Really?” said Harold Bruner in a genuine look of surprise.
“That’s not the worst of it, and I’m glad you’re sitting down. He’s been batching and playing around with some of the stuff we produced during ‘Uncle’s Gig’. I’m fairly sure he’s building off our proprietaries from the whole affair – with our labels affixed to just about every damn thing lying around the place.”
The wind once again left Harold Bruner’s sails. He began to feel all the various effects that sweeping anxiety has on the human body. He took a deep drink almost as a reflex. “I thought we purged all of that stuff.”
“Well, Conley would have been the one to purge it, wouldn’t he?” said Gaither with a wince.
“Uncle’s Gig” was their codename for the government contract they received in 1950. Its undertaking was to manipulate human behavior through psychotropic pharma, and Conley Chislom had been knee-deep into it. Bruner was never completely comfortable with the unspecified human testing that must be taking place on the government’s end of the appointment. He was relieved when it was eventually pulled from them. It was his decision to ensure that there remained no scrap of paper anywhere within the whole of their office that referenced any aspect of the project. Gaither whitewashed all of the financials and Dr. Conley Chislom was to destroy the actual notes and work product.
“That’s just not going to do,” said Bruner. “All we need is to have Conley and Seabolt peddling American’s new public enemy number one after they cooked it up here.”
“What do you propose we do?” asked Gaither.
“Well, we take the initiative.” Bruner extinguished his cigarette in the ashtray and leaned back in the small chair. “We alert the feds to Conley’s operation and put them onto the jackass immediately.”
In the summer of 1966, the Georgia heat was relentless and the rain scarce. Joi Hashimoto wheeled Conley Chislom’s Ford off of the highway and under a row of pecan trees by a modest produce stand. She had another two hours remaining in her journey back to Decatur. Since it was the end of September and peaches were in season, Chislom insisted that she bring back two sacks of the less acidic white variety as she traveled through the veins of the state. That was his only condition for allowing her to use his car to drive the ashes of Dr. William Gaston to his estranged wife’s home in North Carolina.
The funeral home had forwarded Gaston’s ashes to Joi, and she had held on to them since his passing in July of the previous year – right after she had followed Dr. Conley Chislom and Reginald Seabolt from her home in Chicago to research alongside them at their home in Georgia. Back then, the two men had initially sought the aid of Gaston, but were ultimately thankful to recruit her instead. It has been just over a year that she has been living alongside the quirky personalities of the two, and the delivery of Gaston’s ashes offered a chance for Joi to rightly consign his remains, as well as get a much-needed reprieve from her housemates.
Joi’s trip to North Carolina was the second time she had borrowed Chislom’s Ford Fairlane. The first loan of the vehicle took place a year ago, right after she moved in – when she preferred private self-analysis to communal discovery with two men of recent acquaintance with whom she had precious little in common. Piloted less by an obligation to sound scientific praxis and more by her precocious sense of adventure, Joi found herself engaged in the inevitable, and allowed herself to be injected with 8 mL of PSIONICA. The very drug that had turned Dr. Conley Chislom and Reginald Seabolt into miracles of science and had inspired her to uproot her life in Chicago. Despite all his dispirited contentions (of which there were many), Joi persuaded Chislom that it would be best if she… experienced herself by herself and traveled alone to coastal Georgia in his car. After a cathartic (and at one point, harrowing) week of walking the historic avenues of downtown Savannah, she returned and knew exactly what the drug had done to her.
After picking out Chislom’s peaches at the produce stand, Joi paid a very old woman for the produce. Watching her squinting down at the money, Joi considered the pain that was so perceptible in the woman’s tanned and haggard face. Clearly, the origin of the woman’s hardship was her swollen and very conspicuous arthritic hands. As the woman pawed the bills for the peaches, Joi thought of the long, hard history that had settled into the wretch before her – a portrait painted by years of misfortune and disappointment. Joi thought the hands were beautiful. Beautiful and voluminously sad. Sad beyond any one exposition or any one reason. Sad as a life run aground so long ago.
She tipped the old woman a noticeable amount, thanked her and briskly carried her produce back to the Ford before a protest of the gift could be made. Sitting in the Ford and deliberating on the pitiful woman, Joi realized she could do nothing to alleviate the affliction or the long years of pain assured by the unique severity of the old woman’s disease, just as her generous gratuity could not relieve the woman’s burden of having to sell peaches, tomatoes and red plum jam amid the irritation of flies and the heat of the Georgia highway. What she could do, however, was fix the sadness.
An old truck that was turning around by the stand took the old woman’s attention. She smiled at the truck’s driver, and her gentle pleasantness somehow broke Joi’s heart. With hardly no effort at all, Joi reached her thoughts to the woman and found her, somehow perceiving the old woman’s mind with an ineffable certainty as reliable as Joi’s other five senses. She lost count of how many times she had linked with someone. She was getting good at it.
The truck left and the woman was looking down now. She became still. Slowly, her frail arms folded to her chest, which began to heave, and she smiled – smiled until the small laughter burbled from her expression. Joi had seen the same gesture on everyone she directed this particular emotion to. Like all the rest, the old woman’s response was to embrace herself. Happiness moistened her eyes, though no tears rolled down her cheeks, as happened with some. The rich emotional experience Joi was causing would not last long, but, perhaps, it would rekindle a happiness that the poor woman may have long forgotten to even hope for. That was Joi’s intention, sitting there in Chislom’s Ford, near the produce stand, under the row of pecan trees.
Joi had settled on defining her amazing ability as empathic manipulation, and it took her a while to figure it out. During the previous summer’s unaccompanied trip of self-seeking appraisal following the PSIONICA injection, she had tried exhaustively to telepathically connect with people sauntering through the parks of Savannah. She tried to read their thoughts or to extend her own, as achieved by Reginald Seabolt. She even enlisted several children playing in Forsyth Park to guess what yummy food she was thinking about. At length, she found that she was not a telepath and certainly did not have the strange conveyance ability that PSIONICA had granted to Seabolt. But it was with the eldest child amid the throng that something did happen. Joi could feel a definitive… connection. Instinctively, she knew that the alien sensation came from Chislom’s compound. For the rest of the day, she tirelessly pursued her discovery, quietly “connecting” to the minds of people as they walked by her park bench. She could tell nothing about them, could not read their thoughts or determine anything about their personality whatsoever. She could just “see” the definitive presence of their minds before her.
On her third morning, while staring into her black coffee, Joi circumnavigated her new talent in turn to each hungry local and tourist alike in a crowded diner near her motel. As she moved from one mind to the next, she thought of how she could see a patron, hear them clinking their forks on their plates, smell their cologne or perspiration, and reach out to touch or taste them, if she were so bold. Now, her mind experienced a completely new impression of these people – a new sense – a sixth sense. As impressive as this power was, Joi was about to discover the scope of what she was actually capable of.
While linked to an exhaustively unhappy toddler with blonde pigtails and a piercing wail, Joi (like everyone else in the restaurant) wanted the child to stop crying. The poignant misery written on the child’s face had affected Joi stronger than just a moment before, and she found that in her desire for the child to be content, it actually began to happen.
She discovered there was more to her “sixth sense” than she initially thought. The connection she experienced with other minds was just the interfacing phase of a far greater capability to override and control the emotional state of people. As a scientist of neurophysiology, Joi had realized that emotions where somehow controlled in a convoluted labyrinth of chemicals washing over the brain and stimuli triggering very specific formations of neurons – a field of study that was still in its infancy in the mid-1960s. By whatever complex and mystifying means the human brain churns the irresistible sea of emotion, Joi was apparently its master.
She continued her explorations and eventually tinkered with emotions that fell to the unfavorable spectrum. Meandering through the streets, she vacillated over which unwitting urbanite would receive a dose of resentment, nervousness or apprehension. In her reticence, she only encouraged the slightest bend to these more negative dispositions. Thanks to her rich and especial field of study, Joi benefited from a robust understanding of the nature of emotions. She quickly learned she could solidify a general pleasure of dignity to create the more specific feeling of self-assurance, could mold irresolute hesitancy over to displeasure and right down to anger. The key with these nuanced emotions, she found, was to begin with root feelings and cascade them to the complex.
The mental connection Joi first discovered allowed her to comprehend the forming and efficacy of each emotion she caused. Despite the stoniest of poker faces, she knew her subjects were receiving her changes. Though, try as she might, her connection did not allow her to detect people’s native feelings, only those she introduced and modulated. She was thankful to find that her influence seemed to dissipate fairly soon after she broke connection.
Always the scientist, Joi wrote down theories and consulted academic texts that she had brought along. At length, she came to an unsettling possibility regarding her newfound dominative tinkering. She suspected that if she happened upon a subject with a problem predisposition to an emotion, there was a risk that her sway would cause near-unsurpassable behavioral complications – for the rest of their lives. It was this concern that caused Joi to stop her quiet experiments on the denizens of Savannah – but not completely. The one emotion she was willing to extend was one she defined as a gift – and she was generous with it. It was a fleeting mosaic of contentment that melted into elation. The feeling then solidified to an existential peace and fulfillment. She passed this opulent happiness to the flustered street sweeper, the ill-looking gas attendant, and the sad-eyed mother of four at a bus stop. Joi was dispirited at the number of unhappy people she found once the effort was made to find them, but chuckled when she considered that she was probably the first person in history to take literal action on the phrase, “…And goodwill to all.”
Chislom had reminded her to look for the second ability – the one that granted her psychogenic control over the physical. She almost forgot about it. Chislom was particularly eager to learn if she had the ability to extend her consciousness outside her body like himself. From her motel room telephone, she had told him that she had stayed up much of her first night in town travailing to possess objects around her room until sleep overcame her. She even had taken a few empty milk cartons to a vacant lot behind the motel to see if she could ignite them in a similar manner as Seabolt. Nothing had ever happened, and she had told him an inconvenient breeze would always end up knocking the cartons over while she experimented.
…Knocking the cartons over, she thought.
Joi got off the phone with Chislom when he began to lean into a reinvigorated insistence that she come back. He so wanted to witness this empathic manipulation she spoke of. He had also repeated his dissidence of a young woman renting rooms alone. Failing to resist the urge and before she rang off, she had made a secret attempt to connect with his mind. Alas, her ability to link with another consciousness did not seem to work over the phone.
“A breeze… Knocking them over.” She gave a reflective voice to her previous thought as she sat on the edge of one of two twin beds. Her newfound ability had taken most of her attention and she forgot about Dr. Gaston’s theory that there should be a pair of abilities. Chislom, in his long reasoning with the theory, had even come up with a name for the two – psycho-psionic and physio-psionic. They could easily categorize bedeviling people’s emotions as an example of the psycho-psionic side of her newly arranged psi-powered mind. Successfully immolating pieces of trash like Seabolt represented the physio-psionic side, and she had not even come close to that.
Joi walked out into the night air and back to the vacant lot behind the motel. She placed an empty soda can on the same cinderblock she used for the milk cartons. Unlike before, there was no wind and no apparent threat to the can’s stability, but, Was there wind before? she considered.
At 11:30 PM, Joi suspected there was no real concern of someone walking from the closed service station just around the brick corner, like there had been before. Instantly, Joi considered that she may have been holding back earlier when she could hear people milling about the station. She supposed that earlier she could have been nervous that she might actually incite one of Seabolt’s combustions during her attempts with the milk cartons. What if someone walked around the corner and saw what she did? What would she say? Now, however, she was all alone. The service station was closed. It was clearly just her and the can.
She remembered Seabolt’s inarticulate account of the “mounting connectedness” he claimed to feel with the objects he set ablaze. She focused on the can and was soon lost in a sharp fixation. The world around her grew ever quieter and was soon nonexistent. Slowly, the can began to produce a tinny whine and gave a spastic jolt, which flung it off the cinderblock onto the dewy grass below.
“How about it there, China doll?”
Joi nearly came out of her skin. A pale and desperate-looking woman walked toward her, with glaring and glazed eyes that beamed a contrived friendliness that, at once, sent chills down her spine.
“We seen you. You’re in 203 right? What you doing out here, China doll”?
When the woman said we, Joi glanced up to see the partial shape of a large man with disheveled brown hair and a long unkempt beard. With his plaid shirt, Joi thought he looked like a lumberjack. The man stood by the brick corner that led to the closed service station and the unpopulated street beyond. Something about his stance and peculiar placement by the corner told her that he was the lookout. The woman, now much closer, caught Joi’s cognizance of the situation, dispensed with all pretense and produced an automatic knife. With a click, she had it open and pointed low at Joi’s torso.
“Hey, damn you!” the woman hissed, “Run us up to your room or I’ll cut open your damn belly!”
Joi could see the woman’s sparse and yellowed teeth brandished in a hate-fueled grimace. As the woman’s sinister figure drew closer, the sour stink of beer and body odor hit Joi like a wave. Joi stared at the woman’s face and head, and without fully realizing her intention to do so, applied the same psionic outflow that she must have achieved moments ago. Whatever happened to the empty soda can, was now happening to the woman’s head.
The machinelike quality to the woman’s angry shriek gave Joi her first hint at the invisible effect she was causing. The sound was almost inhuman – a juddering bark of a scream that was cut short by her immediate lack of consciousness. The horrible sound indicated the same thing that the dance of the falling soda can did – vibration.
Joi was registering this when she saw the loom of the descending lumberjack, closing on her quickly despite the obvious inebriation of his step.
“Brenda! What the hell did you do, you bitch?!”
Joi wasted no time. She did not know what damage she caused to “Brenda,” nor was she eager to make another attempt at the just-discovered physio-psionic side of her new self. Instead, she called down the power she had been practicing with all week and filled the lumberjack with a swelling fear that she cultivated from his root emotion of hesitation. As he reached for her, she was already connected to him. The large man stopped dead in his tracks and his face took on the expression of having been flung from a great height to an assured death. He felt the sinking sick of losing control of one’s bowels – a sensation he had not felt since early childhood.
“YAAAAAAAAAAAA,” screamed the man as he scrambled away for dear life. The man flung himself forward, running fast and far – far from their motel, far from Joi and far from Brenda.
After grabbing her things from her room, Joi raced Chislom’s Ford through the dark and encroaching rain all the way to Statesboro – not so far from Savannah. She spent the remainder of the night sleeping in the backseat, parked in the far quiet corner of a diner’s parking lot. She was still close enough to Savannah for any sensational events – like a discovered body – to make the local news. She spent the next day exploring her second ability while intently listening to the radio for any mention of the fate of Brenda. She heard nothing.
As she discovered, her physio-psionic gift turned out to be telekinesis – but not like one would infer from fictional depictions. Indeed, she could move matter with the power of her mind – but the movement was limited to a complete rapid vibration to the items of her focus. Smaller objects reverberate as though they were sitting atop a machine. Larger objects, particularly cars and trucks, would start with multiple irregular micro-vibrations and then ease into a harmonized shimmy as though a cadre of ghost pranksters were bobbing the vehicle about. By the time she left the city limits of Statesboro, half the town was gibbering about the day’s earthquake.
That was a little over a year ago, and Joi was thinking of that first trip in Chislom’s Ford as she returned from her second. She pulled into the driveway and found the vehicle’s owner weeding a bed of pansies and red slipper azaleas. She stopped the Ford alongside him, all smiles.
Chislom said, “I’ll go in and get a pitcher of sweet tea, be a dear and hang those ferns back up when you pull under the carport. They should be drained by now.”
Joi hung the four baskets of wet ferns back along the side of the carport. Leaving her luggage for later, she walked Chislom’s peaches around to the front porch and sat them down on a small table between a pair of rocking chairs. She looked around the large porch, appreciating the history of the beautiful antebellum home.
“Take a seat, Joi,” said Chislom, red-faced and clammy from the exertions of the yardwork. He was carrying a pitcher of tea in one hand and two glasses in the other. He pinched the glasses between his dirt-stained thumb and forefinger, and Joi fought hard to keep revulsion from her expression.
“Thanks, Conley, but I’ve been sitting long enough, I think I may stand for the rest of the evening.”
“Siler City, North Carolina to Decatur, Georgia is a hell of a haul, that’s for sure. I trust the Ford held up all right. That car has sure seen more road since you’ve been around,” Chislom frowned. “I still can’t get used to a woman of your age traveling alone. You are lucky some hoodlum hasn’t deprived you of your valuables – or worse.”
Joi’s mind ran to the makeshift Bonnie and Clyde back in Savannah, certain that she would never hear the end of it if Chislom ever found out.
“Now let’s have a look at these peaches. Just look at that. Two bags of babies’ butts, that’s what mama used to call them in a bag like that. Bag of babies’ butts. Did I ever tell you that we had the governor over for peach cobbler?”
“Not peach cobbler, but you did tell me that he came over for tomato sandwiches once.”
“Oh, well after the tomato sandwiches we had peach cobbler – I believe that’s right…”
Joi looked down and gave a grin. If she was not careful, Chislom would drive the conversation from the governor, to the prerequisite for politicians to serve in the military and then to his own military service.
“Conley, where’s Reg?”
At once, the cheerfulness fell from Chislom’s face, and he nodded in the direction of the city park Seabolt had begun to frequent.
“Is he getting any better?”
“No. All the booze is making him beat himself up more than usual. The only reason he leaves the house is because I told him I didn’t want him drinking under this roof anymore. I guess he keeps gin hidden somewhere in the park. The boy needs some help.” Chislom’s expression as he looked up at Joi told her exactly what he was going to ask before asking it.
“No, Conley, No. Not again.”
“Joi, I believe it makes a difference in him and we need to—”
“I’m more concerned about possible lasting effects, Conley. The artificial self-assurance does not last and he, above anyone else, would certainly be aware that I’m tweaking him. He could become – heaven forbid – dependent.”
“We need to… stabilize him, Joi. He’s become fixated on his physio-psionic side of the ability, and it’s scaring him. He’s insisted we stop with the combustion experiments in the backyard. On the day after you left for North Carolina, I was able to talk him into a burger at the Milford’s. You should’ve seen him. He was a nervous wreck, kept wanting to shut his eyes. Everyone in the place probably thought he was an absolute loon. Told me he was scared he’d accidentally burn up some poor mother’s baby.”
“Do you think he’s capable of that?”
“No… But… I know that he is not rational. He thinks that the Russians are trying to kidnap us and my work. He thought the waitress had a Russian accent, kept saying she was taking notes on us. I told him her name was Berta, she’s Polish and she’s just taking orders! He thinks half of those trucks on that work site have a team of Russian spies ready to hop out of them.” Chislom pointed to a long row of work trucks and vans that were parked near a construction site a block down the street. Crews of men and their heavy-duty construction vehicles had been littering the area for months, and she had been impressed at their progress when she drove by earlier. An array of large swarthy men, clearly engaged in the erection of a towering office building, were milling about.
Chislom glowered sharply at Joi. “He’s going to shine a very bright, very negative light on his whole damn thing before I’m ready. I’ve worked with Uncle Sam, child. They will take it from us if we don’t position ourselves as reliable experts regarding PSIONICA.”
Joi wanted to tell Chislom that they would probably take it from them anyway, but she knew it would only invite another long debate-heavy deliberation with a very bull-headed man over an increasingly nagging question that loomed over the three of them – what exactly are they going to do with PSIONICA? Since they had brought her in, Joi had successfully talked Chislom out of revealing the discovery to his ex-girlfriend, a source he claimed to know in the CIA and his purportedly good friend – the governor of Georgia. Seabolt was unstable and Chislom was full of bad ideas.
“I’ll talk to him,” said Joi. “But that’s all. I’m not going to make any attempts at his mood.”
Joi rounded a corner in the park and saw Seabolt placing a clear bottle under a large flat rock by shrubs near his bench. As she drew near she said, “You’re going to wind up getting dirt in that.”
The thin man jumped, suddenly looking aggravated, and stared back down at his refreshed paper cup.
“I thought you were those kids.”
“Well, if they happen to see what I just saw, I guarantee your stash gets raided.”
“When did you get in?”
Seabolt maintained his routine of looking down as she talked, a habit that made Joi uncomfortable. A habit that made everyone uncomfortable.
“Conley says you’re drinking too much. I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Why do you have to talk to me like that?” Seabolt frowned in a look of contemplative hurt. His uncharacteristic brassy tone told Joi he was already pretty drunk. She took a seat beside him on his bench.
“Reg, I think you can appreciate how important it is for us to keep a low profile. You getting drunk in the park is not going to help. Conley says you’re worried, particularly about your ability to incinerate things, that you may have an accident?”
“Do you know how much the world is going to want this? What are we even doing, Joi?”
“Conley and I have made a list of potential people to approach. I’m not certain, but there may be viable ownership issues with regard to your previous empl…”
“You and Conley didn’t make a list, you made a list! I can tell you don’t even listen to Dr. Chislom. You think we’re just dumb hicks and you’re trying to figure out how get PSIONICA from us. Get it from the dumb hicks! You’re just biding your time… Right, Joi?”
“Reg, that’s not true. I… Listen. Conley is way out of his depth here and despite himself, I think he knows it. You know how Conley can be, and both of us work around his personality. You do the same thing. In your own way, you do the exact same thing, right?” Joi felt she was being dishonest, knowing that Seabolt held no shrewd touch in dealing with Chislom or anyone else. She was capitalizing on Seabolt’s recent assertive confrontations with the older man. She felt like a sister talking to a lesser sibling about their doddering patriarch.
“We’re talking about Conley Chislom here, Reg.” His troubled expression yielded only slightly and Joi continued. “Yes, I feel that you and Conley are in way over your heads with this, but I’m over my head, too. I promise you that we three are in this together. Look at me, Reg.”
Joi touched Seabolt on the shoulder and, despite his renowned timidity, he looked her right in the eyes. Something she saw in his relayed resolve and warning. A warning of a man who is beginning to tire from pacing along the ledge. At that very moment, she briefly entertained Chislom’s wish for her to connect and bring him to a more sedate state. But this would only serve as a stopgap, and she strongly suspected that any emotional nudge would be noticed by someone who knew full well what she was capable of. She did not want to destroy what little trust her had in her. “I promise you, Reg. We are in this together.”
Joi held his gaze and began to feel that she was getting through when it happened. He connected with her. Seabolt used the psycho-psionic side of his power to place a picture in her mind. A picture of the two of them locked in gaudy passion akin to the covers of cheap novels. In the mental image, Joi was wearing a taffeta gown with a low decollete neckline, a shirtless Seabolt gripping her shoulders tightly and ravishing her laid bare neck. Seabolt’s scene reflected fall, with orange and red leaves blowing about the vision. Joi instantly recalled the lively dinner conversation where Chislom insisted through her chortles and Seabolt’s enrapt expression that it was best to conceive children in the autumn of the year.
As unwanted and repulsive the mental image was to her generally, the shock of its unanticipated arrival coupled with its uncanny clarity moved her to the dawn of excitement – and she was enraged.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Joi. I didn’t mean to – I really didn’t mean to.”
Joi closed her eyes. It was all that she could do not to slap Seabolt across the face. She wanted to threaten him. She wanted him to see her fury. She breathed out and considered all that was at stake. As offensive as his assault was – and it was an assault – she was simply not going to lose control of this situation – or the deteriorating man in front of her. There was too much on the line.
“Reg...” started Joi.
Seabolt was beaming his broken dignity across a wide pond that fell in the center of the park. Joi noticed his expression change and she followed his gaze across the water to a slim man in brown slacks and a striped shirt. The man was smoking a pipe and was watching them.
“HEY!” shouted Seabolt and he shot up from the bench to bolt the circumference of the pond toward the stranger. Joi rushed after him and as they neared the onlooker a little boy with a remote-controlled boat crested the slope behind him.
“Reg, wait! What are you doing? It’s just some guy and his kid.”
“I thou… I thought he was looking over at us. He looked like he was staring… Like he’d been staring.”
“Reg, go back to the house. You need to get back to the house right now, okay. Just go.”
Like a rebuked child, Seabolt folded and started to head in the direction of the Chislom house. As he sauntered off, he paused to turn slightly and said, “They are watching us, Joi. They’re in the van. Just connect.”
Joi did not immediately walk back to the Chislom house. The uncomfortable exchange with Seabolt put her on edge and she walked to Milford’s for a vanilla milkshake. Passing pleasantries with Berta, she found it hard to believe how Seabolt could consider her a Russian spy. What if he becomes completely unhinged? she thought. Joi suddenly became concerned that perhaps PSIONICA was to blame for Seabolt’s instability. Maybe, for some, the compound caused an increasing state of paranoia. Perhaps Seabolt’s mania was in her future. She contemplated over Reginald Seabolt and all of the people that she had met in her life like him and began to relax. In all likelihood, his current condition was the result of a very insufficient person dealing with being a central part in what the annals of time will define as the most consequential discovery in human history. All things considered, Seabolt was probably the worst candidate to receive the PSIONICA compound. But that could not be helped now.
When she left the diner, Joi passed the large construction zone on her way back to Chislom’s house. A much smaller collection of work vehicles remained. Most of the construction crew had packed up their equipment and had gone home to their dinners and easy chairs. Along with a few work trucks that remained was one lone van. She supposed it had been there earlier, but with the larger assemblage of work vehicles, it did not stand out. Now it seemed to be positioned a little too far from the construction site. With this more singled-out stance, she could see how an unreasonably suspicious imagination could easily place a team of surveillance operators inside. As she walked up the steps of Chislom’s house, she thought of what Seabolt said – “… Just connect.”
“Just connect…” she said under her breath. “Conley!”
Chislom quickly emerged from the kitchen, his hands in soapy dish gloves held up like a surgeon. “What, child, what?”
“Do we have a dog leash?”
“My dear, we do not have a dog.”
“No. I want to take Whistle out for a walk.”
“Whistle is not our dog; he belongs to the Turners next door.”
“Yes, well I don’t think Whistle knows that and he’s probably sitting by your back door right now. I need to use him for a moment.”
Chislom rifled through a nearby closet and produced a piece of rope. “How did it go with Reginald and what’s this all about?”
Joi took the rope and said, “I’ll tell you later and this is probably nothing, Conley.”
“Now, don’t you bring that dog through mama’s house, girl. You walk around.”
Joi and a very-pleased-with-all-of-the-sudden-attention Whistle emerged from the side of Chislom’s residence, approached the sidewalk and headed toward the expansive construction site. The van was still parked in its previous position. This time, there were no other service vehicles in the vicinity, just a few dump trucks that were parked within the chain-link fence enclosing the site itself. The van was parked along the curb outside of the fence. Joi studied the white nondescript vehicle as she and Whistle meandered toward it. She looked back at Chislom’s statuesque home and noticed that the van happened to benefit from a direct line of sight to the residence.
“Just connect…” she murmured.
When Seabolt said it as he was leaving the park, Joi thought he said “disconnect.” When she put together that he said “just connect,” it came to her at once what he intended for her to do. Seabolt knew that her psycho-psionic ability worked similarly to his. They both had to establish a link with another person’s mind – a one-way telepathic connection where Joi could manipulate emotions and Seabolt could relay mental imagery. This connection offered a unique ability in and of itself. It was what Joi had defined as her sixth sense during the first days of her trip to Savannah, when she would sit on her bench and experience the certainty of another human mind near her.
Joi walked alongside the van and Whistle, like a willing and fully versed co-conspirator, paused his trot and sniffed for a place to void his bladder. Visually, there was nothing in her proximity to the van that would warrant suspicion – just a young lady walking a dog. As she expected, no one was seated behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. She stepped closer to the large flat side of the vehicle and closed her eyes, reaching out with her gift.
At once, she felt the unmistakable link to two minds hidden within.